Your efforts to lead, manage, and sell often fail because of people’s fears. The fear may be disguised as resistance, indecision, lack of creativity, poor communication or reluctance to take responsibility. You can work on the symptoms forever, but the big rewards come from dealing with the fundamental fears we all share.

We promise according to our hopes and
perform according to our fears.

— La Rochefoucauld

I painted a lot of houses when I was a teenager. Each season, when school let out, I had to force myself up the ladder again. I didn’t look down, I maintained a white knuckle grip, I kept as much of my body in contact with the ladder as possible. The occasional trips across a plank between ladders were performed sitting down with one hand on the wall. Every sway and breeze was a stomach churning calamity. Some say acrophobia isn’t a fear of heights but a fear of falling and hitting, but that wasn’t true for me. I didn’t think about falling. My body just hated being up there. Over the course of a few days I got more accustomed to being on the ladder and by the end of the summer I even made a few trips across the plank standing up. The fear never went away. I just managed it better. The next season it would be back, full force.

Why would anyone do that to themselves? Why did I tolerate so much discomfort? Why would I place myself in situations which brought up so much fear? The reason, ironically, was my even greater fears. Fears typically drive everyone’s actions–or inaction.

  • Fear of:
    • Loss of face,
    • Loss of affinity or affiliation,
    • Loss of freedom of action, and
    • Loss of knowing what I am.

What gave the fears such power over me as a teenager confronting a ladder was that I was not aware that they were operating on me. I only knew that there was something wrong with a burly guy having rubbery knees on a ladder, so I climbed anyway. My effectiveness was greatly reduced and my enjoyment was zero, but I climbed anyway.

How many of your staff are “climbing anyway”? Are your prospects avoiding you because of a fear unspoken? What rut are you staying in because to get out would put you at risk to lose face, affiliation, or freedom?

A few years ago I gave up pretending. I began to describe myself as acrophobic. I told my wife that I was reluctant to change the porch light because I did not like being on a ladder that high. When I had work to do on the roof I designed the project in a way which minimized trips up the ladder and encounters with the edge. Loss of face was no longer an issue; I was openly acrophobic. I knew what I was. My acknowledgement of the issue moved this aspect of myself from invisible controller to conscious choice. Until then, I had no choice about managing my acrophobia. I was too busy pretending not to be.

That shift set me up for a breakthrough.

He with the face free from fear is the complete victor.

— Samurai saying, quoted by General Douglas MacArthur
as he drove in an open car through the streets of Tokyo.

A professional roofer asked me to look at the repairs he was suggesting. I had told him I was afraid of heights. I had every intention of looking from the ground. As I watched him go up the ladder I saw an opportunity. I thought, “If I hold my body and move exactly the way he does, I’ll learn how it feels to be comfortable on a ladder and a roof.” I modeled my movements after him. I went briskly up the ladder and swung my foot over onto the roof without hesitation. I stood tall and walked normally on the roof (it wasn’t very steep). I stood on the edge and leaned over to see the repairs. The familiar churning in my stomach did not come. My knees did not wobble. I was using my body the way a person comfortable with heights uses his body and so I found myself in the body of a person unafraid of heights. Years have passed and I still climb without fear.

You might say the key to curing my acrophobia was to act as though my acrophobia was cured.

I will say that the key to your management and sales effectiveness is to cut away the excuses, the diversions, and the blame. Acknowledge your fear of loss of face, affiliation, or freedom. Look also for how your employee or prospect may be fearing a loss of face, affiliation, or freedom. Let those fears be there. Only then will your fears let you be effective. You can’t fix what you can’t find.

Employee or customer complaints are seldom about the specific circumstances, so the resolution is not to be found in altering the circumstances. Ever notice how the same people always have most of the complaints? Look for what loss of face, affiliation, or freedom is at stake for the complainer and deal with the fear. This requires genuine curiosity.

Does the thought of defending your life strike fear into your heart? Albert Brooks’s brilliant, funny, and warmhearted 1991 film, Defending Your Life, has as its premise that when we die we must defend three key episodes from our lives on earth. Our behavior determines where we spend eternity. What is the winning strategy? Being yourself, fearlessly.

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