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Leaders and the four fatal fears

“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

This famous quote from Franklin Roosevelt speaks as clearly to leaders today as it did in the 1940s. In their book, Play to Win, Larry and Hersch Wilson present psychologist Maxie Maultsby’s concept of the Four Fatal Fears. Maultsby believes these fears impede our ability to interact effectively with others and take relevant action. These fears can not only immobilize us, but also immobilize an entire organization when a leader is stuck in their grip. Let’s take a look at the impact of these Four Fatal Fears on a leader’s ability to create a dynamic organization that responds quickly and effectively to change, creates new and innovative solutions, and works toward a common vision.

“I fear failure; therefore, I need to succeed.”

When leaders operate from a fear of failure, they are often reluctant to act. They may procrastinate in making decisions and miss opportunities. It impedes their sense of adventure and playfulness, as well as their ability to take the risks necessary for innovation and growth. A fear of failure can manifest itself as a need to have every piece of available information before making a decision. Leaders who fear failure can become imaginatively stuck and in the constant mode of finding answers, rather than reframing questions. Their thinking can become polarized into black-and-white or all-or-nothing approaches that limit creativity and risk-taking.

“I fear being wrong; therefore, I must be right.”

For leaders, the fear of being wrong can make it extremely difficult to tolerate members of their management team who challenge their ideas or conclusions. Over time, dissenting voices become quiet and the management team becomes nothing more than a rubber stamp for the leader’s thinking. The creativity and imagination of the team is lost to the leader and the business. Ultimately, leaders’ fear of being wrong leads to an increased likelihood that they will be wrong. Leaders who need to be right tend to dominate discussions and attempt to control the thinking of others, rather than see others as resources who can expand their understanding of issues and opportunities.

“I fear rejection; therefore, I need to be accepted.”

Fear of rejection makes it difficult for leaders to take a stand and define themselves in situations where relationships feel endangered. Leaders who fear rejection seldom confront the poor performance of subordinates or challenge the thinking of others in a way that promotes lively discussion and debate. These leaders tend to rely exclusively on a consensus decision-making style because they believe it is more important to be liked than respected. Fearing rejection, leaders often try to present themselves in a way that is palatable to everyone, except them. This leads to stress, burnout and lack of confidence. More introverted leaders deal with the fear of rejection by pulling away from relationships and cutting themselves off from the very people with whom they desire connection.

“I fear being emotionally uncomfortable; therefore, I need to be comfortable.”

When leaders need emotional comfort, they lack the capacity to remain present and engaged when faced with resistance or anger from others. They tend to avoid emotionally charged discussions, and therefore, miss the opportunity for mutual learning and growth. The need to avoid emotional discomfort can make the intrinsic loneliness of leadership unbearable. Leaders who attempt to maintain constant emotional comfort become cut off from their own emotions and unable to respond appropriately to the emotions of others. It is almost impossible for leaders to make difficult decisions when they are paralyzed by the fear of others’ emotional responses.


When leaders act out of fear, their actions and decisions are guarded and restrictive. These leaders tend to focus on controlling others, rather than managing themselves. The leaders’ fears and anxieties are transmitted to their organizations, which creates dependency, indecisiveness and lack of personal responsibility. These shared fears can replace the firm’s shared values and lead to ethical lapses, poor and untimely decisions, ineffective communication and dysfunctional relationships. To face and manage these fears, leaders must remain honest with themselves regarding their most prevalent fear and the conditions that are most likely to provoke that fear.

Awareness is the first step to self-management, so here are some exercises to help you determine how fear has an impact on your leadership. Choose the exercise that you feel is most beneficial and revealing. Then, try it for a week and see how it adds clarity to your actions.