In general, fear is considered a bad thing, despite it’s vital importance as a warning and protective mechanism. Sheer terror caused our ancestors to flee from a sabertoothed tiger and hence, they survived. Th e renowned German fear researcher Borwin Bandelow goes so far as to say we owe our very existence to our cowardly ancestors since those with surplus derring-do became saber-tooth tiger food while the fearful ones ran away and lived to tell the tale: Those who willingly took risks had no progeny. Our ancestors were not daring or courageous, we are the descendants of primal cowards […] who embedded their fear in a genetically encoded security mechanism and passed it on to their children. […] Over the course of evolution, those unafraid of dangerous spiders, snakes, saber-toothed tigers and other life-threatening creatures died out. They were simply too careless.[1]

 Fear is as old as humanity itself, firmly anchored in the limbic system of every human brain. The moment you encounter an assumed or actual threat, your body reacts automatically according to a programmed pattern and there’s little you can do about it. Your pulse and breath accelerate, your pupils widen, the blood supply in your muscles increases, your attentiveness and concentration sharpen, your body releases stress hormones. Hunger, basic bodily functions or sex are banned from your mind. Every cell in your body and brain is single-mindedly intent on reacting quickly and correctly. Fight or flight? You have a fraction of a second to decide or you’re saber-toothed tiger meat.

If this survival mechanism has kept us alive for millennia, why do we say fear is a poor advisor? Because too much fear paralyzes us and too little blinds us to possible danger. Both override the mechanism’s warning and protective attributes. Most of us have at least once in our lives experienced paralyzing fear. Your system shuts down and your reaction capacity is completely blocked. You can’t fight, you can’t flee. You literally freeze where you stand and do nothing. With some of our clients we encounter this paralysis most often when they are called on to make decisions. And we work with team or company leaders with decisionmaking power a lot. But if you have a decider at the top incapable of making decisions, the results can be disastrous.

Sticking your head in the sand has never solved anything. Most often it only makes things worse. Problems do not go away, no matter how long and hard you ignore them. To go further, you may not be aware of it, but not making a decision is also a decision. Whether you want to or not, not deciding decides for the status quo. Germans statistics show that leaders’ reluctance to make decisions arises from the fear of making the wrong move, triggering undesirable results: 54 percent of managers fear errors of judgement; 38 percent are afraid of failing at crisis communications.[2] Yet, no one talks about fear, especially not on the executive level, where fear could be seen as a weakness, making leaders vulnerable to attack. But fear is not a personal issue when it comes to company or team leaders, it’s an economic one. In their book Angst – Macht – Erfolg/Fear – Power – Success, authors Winfried Panse and Wolfgang Stegmann calculate fear’s economic damage at over a 100 billion euros: Every year, billions are lost to fear-related issues. Absenteeism and reduced working hours cost 9 billion euros; medication abuse, 10 billion; alcohol abuse, 24 billion; fear-based mobbing, 20 billion and mental resignation, 93 billion.[3] The bad news is: Refusing to confront and work with your fears can eventually lead to a complete collapse or, at the least, strongly restrict your ability to lead a good life. But there’s good news, too! Battling your fears is well worth the effort – it’s a battle you can win, improving your life enormously. The first step is to differentiate between fear and worry, which are often errantly used synonymously.

Like joy, anger or sadness, fear is a basic emotion playing out in the brain’s limbic system. These emotions react automatically to preprogrammed triggers, so we have little control over them. If an arachnophobe sees a harmless house spider, his inherent reflex is to get out fast. Of course, he knows the creature is no real threat, but the sight of any spider shuts down his rational mind.

An excerpt from the book “Leadership is More – 27 Questions We Too Can Answer” written by Gianni, Jan & Marcello Liscia, 2022

[1] Bandelow, Borwin, Flugangst. Woher sie kommt und wie man sie bekämpfen kann Aerophobia. Where it comes from and how to overcome it., Rowohlt e-book 2015, pg. 33f.

[2] Cf.

[3], Wenn Manager Angst haben/When Managers are Afraid, published Nov. 8, 2006

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