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The “F” word in leadership

TC North //August 28, 2013//

The “F” word in leadership

TC North //August 28, 2013//

What’s the F word in leadership? It’s what most leaders fear the most … failure. It’s true for most leaders in all fields: business, sports, science—it’s even true in leading one’s family. But is it true for the most successful leaders?

I began using the term “the F word” when referring to failure after I interviewed Jeremy Bloom and he couldn’t get himself to say the word. Jeremy played football at CU Boulder, was a three-time freestyle skiing world champion, played three years of NFL football and has now built a very successful nonprofit organization, Wish of a Lifetime, and for-profit company, Integrate. Here’s a part of our conversation and how the F word in leadership originated.

TC: Are you afraid to fail?

Jeremy: No. I love … it’s weird; you know, you can find different levels of failure—but I love to f…. [he just couldn’t get the word out]. I don’t look at it as failures. I look at it as setbacks—and I love setbacks because I think every setback gives you an opportunity to separate from everyone else. … So … I love the challenges of those setbacks and the opportunities that they present.

TC: That’s one of the top Fearless Leaders™’ secrets: world-class leaders have the courage to fail … in order to succeed.

Jeremy: Yes. I think the only true failures in life is lessons that you don’t learn. … My definition of a failure would be “a setback that was never solved.” That would be a failure to me. Outside of that, there’s not much, in business or sports that I would look at as a failure.

Developing a mindset of being excited about setbacks because they are opportunities to become more masterful frees you from fear of failure. It’s a complete, 100 percent resolution that there is no longer fear and no longer failure, only setbacks that give you the opportunity to become greater.

Fear of failure limits your success if you don’t learn to master it. It’s a tricky fear, though, because it shows up with many faces—some obvious and some not. The first step in dealing with fear of failure is recognizing it. Here are nine faces of the fear of failure.

I also recommend the Five-Step technique to master fear outlined in my previous article.

1. Not Giving 100 percent

This fear comes from the belief that if you give 100 percent and fail, then you’re a failure. This is the most devastating form of fear of failure because it seems hopeless, as if you’re permanently flawed.

2. Procrastination

This is a more obvious face of the fear of failure. When you’re afraid to fail and you think you might, you put off doing things so you don’t have to face failing.

3. Anger

Many triggers can set off anger, and one of them is fear of failure. Instead of dealing directly with your fear, you cover up your fear of failure by a protective emotion, anger. Anger is almost always a secondary response; it’s a protective emotion that helps prepare you to go into a fight-or-flight response when threatened.

4. Crying

There are various reasons people cry, including emotional and physical pain and grief. Just like anger as described above, crying is sometimes a secondary emotion that covers up fear.

5. Rationalizing

This happens every day in leadership sales and relationships. For example, after losing a big deal, the leader or sales rep says, “We didn’t have much of a chance anyway.” Rationalizing weakens you emotionally. Instead of rationalizing, decide to learn from your setbacks and keep improving.

6. Avoidance

Some people avoid putting themselves in situations where they think they could fail. This is a surefire way to live your life as an underachiever. Underachievers stay in their comfort zone; facing the possibility of failure is too uncomfortable. Conversely, high performers live and thrive with challenge and discomfort. The possibility of failure motivates them into positive action.

7. Indecision

It’s important to remember that indecision is a decision. It’s a decision to not change anything now. It’s an inaction that keeps things the same. High performers and Fearless Leaders are good decision makers. Sometimes the decision is to do nothing, but deciding this is an active decision, not a passive lack of action.

8. “Nexciting™”

Are you always chasing a new, shiny ball—always after the latest “thing,” be it a new idea or a better product or service—before finishing what you already started? Going after what’s new and exciting (“nexciting”) can energize you even if you’re not succeeding at anything important. Nexciting is like a drug cover-up for fear of failure.

9. Withdrawal

There are different levels of withdrawal. A mild form would be similar to procrastination or avoidance. In an extreme case, you could be curled up in bed in the fetal position. If the fear is so big that it immobilizes you emotionally and you withdraw, you may not be ready for the challenge.


Now that you’re familiar with the nine faces of fear of failure, score yourself on this 1 to 5 scale:

1 = never/almost never

2 = seldom

3 = sometimes

4 = often

5 = always/almost always

Fear of failure affects my personal life. _____

Fear of failure affects my business life. _____

Which of the nine faces is most prevalent in you? ____________________

Which of the nine do you notice in others? _________________

For all the great leaders whom my co-author Cathy Greenberg and I have worked with, the F word has very little meaning, because they, like Jeremy Bloom, view bad outcomes as setbacks to learn from.

For additional information on how to master each of the nine faces of fear of failure, here’s an in-depth article.