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Overcoming the Fear, Fog, and Fatigue in Leadership

Tools from entrepreneurs for leaders navigating a murky path.

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In January of this year, prior to the pandemic, I gave talks to entrepreneurs about the common impediments to growing their businesses. What I thought was strictly a response to the creative process for artists and entrepreneurs, I now see is a universal truth for anyone going through great distress (and growth). “Anyone,” writes Eric Ries from The Lean Startup, “who is creating a new product or a business under conditions of extreme uncertainty is an entrepreneur whether working in a government agency, a venture-backed company, a non-profit…” (Ries 2011)

For managers in larger companies, you are what Ries calls “intrapreneurs,” working within a company to endorse and encourage innovation. Due to radical transformation this year, you might find yourself being called to fill that role without having the right tools for navigating the change.

The good news is that business leaders can glean critical insight from entrepreneurs on how to navigate murky waters. Entrepreneurs are risk takers, with great vision, who have learned to be comfortable in chaos. Making sense of disorder, amidst the fear, fog and fatigue is what entrepreneurs can offer leaders during the time of COVID-19.

Fear

Feeling fear during this pandemic is a shared occurrence. Even leaders in companies are experiencing fight, flight or freeze, which puts you in survival mode. This is a coping strategy that gives you a feeling of being in control of your circumstances when really it keeps you small and closed off to possibility.

Take, for example, a client of mine who struggled to let go of her fear of losing control. She had a growing business that desperately needed a strategic plan. While she was aware that her fear diminished the trust between herself and her employees, she kept clinging to control. The more she held on the less tactical she became and the more she worried that things wouldn’t get done.

In her book, The 5 Second Rule, Mel Robbins writes that fear is not what you think it is. It’s a feeling — yes. But it’s also a habit. She explains that you get used to the feeling of fear, so you turn to it just like you turn to a donut when you are stressed. It might make you feel in control, but it doesn’t resolve your problems, in fact it cuts off the flow to creative solution. The more readily you can address your fears, the more comfortable you will be stepping into the unknown.

Fog

Entrepreneurs are known for wearing too many hats in their businesses. That’s part of the conundrum of being your own boss; it’s your job to make everything happen, yet you have limited time and energy. When the ever-evolving business requires you to pivot, the tasks seem endless — your vision blurs and the fog sets in.  

Fog is a signal that adaptation is necessary. When you are overwhelmed by your workload, it’s an invitation to adjust. When you cannot see where you are going, it’s important to step back from your conditioned responses to a situation and look at it with fresh eyes.  

As leaders, each time you expand into a new realm of growth and change you will encounter obstacles. They are a given, according Ryan Holiday. In fact, they are “the way” (Holiday, 2014). Obstacles are there to help you triumph over your fear and doubts, to find opportunity and insight on your new path. Trust the process.

Fatigue

When your mind is racing and your body is taxed, eventually you hit a wall. Last year, a client of mine came to me so exhausted from her ongoing cycle of working seven days a week, then encountering crippling exhaustion that lasted up to three weeks. This went on for the first two years of running her business.

Numerous studies have shown that working 50+ hours a week, decreases your productivity due to fatigue. Momentum for business owners, and leaders alike, is vital to monetary growth. If the ball is dropped for too long, productivity begins to flatline.

With accountability, my client gave herself breaks, and eventually took Sundays off of work each week. Not only did she feel physically and mentally rested, but she began to come up with creative ideas for her business. From that place she gained clarity on how she wanted to move her business forward, working less while increasing her revenue.

So now what?

To all you leaders, managers, supervisors — I know you’re tired. Some of you may be working more this year than ever before. Your fatigue and confusion are a normal response to everything happening.

It takes a concerted effort to relinquish fears, give yourself rest, and create new avenues to see differently. Be mindful that it is a process. But you must honor your needs if you want real change to happen. Find someone you trust who will help you stick to a holistic strategy, that addresses your necessity for rest, freedom from the monkey-mind and a plan to maintain momentum. Take stock in your ability to innovate and trust yourself as you move through it.

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