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When it comes to leading with courage in the face of fear, there are few people with more experience than Navy SEALs. I recently had the chance to hear combat veteran and retired Navy SEAL officer Larry Yatch, co-founder of SEAL Team Leaders, present on leadership to a select group of entrepreneurs.
The secret to success in business, Yatch says, boils down to five components: stewardship, strategy, people, execution and planning. Most companies are only good at one or two of these things, and Yatch says he has yet to meet a business that is inherently great at all five.
Yatch is an expert on how to differentiate between necessary and unnecessary fear, and what to do about each. In times of uncertainty and rapid change, stalling out or freezing in inaction can often be more dangerous than the actual threats we’re facing.
All fear is caused by a perceived lack of control, Yatch says. But we can channel our fears into opportunities to pivot, adjust, and achieve. Yatch notes that many entrepreneurs have done this with success in the past. More than half of the Fortune 500 (Microsoft, Uber, Airbnb) and half of the companies in the S&P 500 were started during recessions. So, in a nutshell: This is the entrepreneur’s time to shine.
The psychological and physical components of fear
Fear is a primal experience for everyone. Back to the time of cave men, our reactions to real or imagined fears can be summed up by “Fight, Flight or Freeze.” Physiologically, we react to the stress of fear with decreased neocortex (higher cognitive brain) activity. We develop tunnel vision. Hearing shuts off. Core muscle group strength is enhanced. And time shifts (it seems like everything has moved to slow motion). These physiological reactions are useful for a caveman but can hamper us in modern life.
Fear happens for all of us. So courage, Yatch says, is not the absence of fear, but making the right decisions and actions in spite of our fear.
In the face of limited resources and a high-risk environment (yes, that’s all of us now), we have the ability to use communication to gain power (the ability to influence change) and control (illustrated power in a given situation, such as pivoting a business or implementing a strategy to render a better outcome). When we operate in spite of fear, we illustrate courage and inspire others. So even though we are “modern-day cavemen” (albeit with better tools and fancier clothes) we can overcome our innate physiology to take effective action.
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Our perceptions of danger produce fear
Danger is, in essence, represented by anything that limits your ability to control your safety. A live shooter. A loss of job. A deadly virus. Fear, in turn, is the feeling of anxiety caused by the perception of danger, with perception being the operative word. Fear lives in our minds but is experienced in our bodies as the physical manifestation of a perceived lack of control.
“Fears alone can never hurt us,” Yatch says.
We must learn to separate necessary fears (being faced by a gunman or an oncoming car) from unnecessary fears (sleepless nights filled with worry over frightening possibilities, such as loss of a job, a recession, or a relationship ending).
“Necessary fears open possibilities,” Yatch says. “Unnecessary fears close possibilities.”
The entrepreneurs present acknowledged unanimously that this is true. In the face of the current crisis, some leaders spring into action as if fired by a surge of adrenalin: determining what they have, what is needed, and what they need to do next. This is how many of the world’s best innovations come to light. Factories pivot. Job responsibilities change. Communities come together to serve their vulnerable members and support individuals who are now without jobs.
Unnecessary fears such as “I don’t know what’s coming. My company might fail. I might get sick or lose the respect of my partner and family” will dramatically lower the possibilities of success, because these types of thoughts limit you from thinking and acting productively. You can’t sleep, you may drink heavily, fail to eat or suddenly eat very poorly. You walk into traffic, miss work, lose your keys and glasses.
As I often note to others, when you’re frozen in fear you become your own worst enemy. You look for somebody or something to blame. You metaphorically trip on your own shoelaces, veritably ensuring you will fall.
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Regaining your power
Since fear begins in your mind, that’s where it must first be attacked, Yatch says. You must learn to manage the fear by learning, practicing, and gaining experience.
“Knowledge is the kryptonite to fear,” he said. “It is easier to take action when you truly understand what it is you fear.”
Next comes practice. Like the young child learning to ride a two-wheel bike, you experience failure in a setting with limited consequences to produce a state of mind conducive to learning. In this respect, failure is a vital part of the process.
Experience, then, is the combination of knowledge and practice that strengthens your ability to stare danger in the face as you take action, influence change and restore control.
How do you apply these rules to your business?
In the face of a crisis like a global pandemic or a halted economy, great leaders can apply the principles of courage to the five components of business: stewardship, strategy, people, execution, and planning.
So, for example, in a crisis, we can observe the companies that are springing into action with stewardship for their people and their customers. One notable CEO acknowledged to Yatch that his company is taking a hit of 75 to 80 percent of its revenue. He said, “As I look at our core values, the first and most important is taking care of our people. These are people who were all in, who were kicking butt, and I’m going to need them on the other side. I’m going to do everything I can to keep them and show them how important they are.”
On the flip side, Yatch says that CEOs who are looking around for people to fire “should be firing themselves.” He also that notes that some leaders, when faced with the inevitability of reducing their workforce (such as a publicly-traded company that must protect the company’s ability to remain alive in the market) have gone the extra mile to help support and place the individuals affected among the other companies within the region or space.
“You cannot violate the trust of these people and expect to thrive on the other side,” Yatch maintains. Conversely, as your own organization pivots, now is the ideal time to recruit since the “pick of the litter” candidates are more available.
In the realm of strategy, are you making your employees excited about the future? Or are you spreading more negativity and fear? Yes, you need to worry about cash. But what will you do to amend that worry?
Examine your core market. Take a look at your process and procedures. What is your own most critical issue right now? Study the five key priorities to map out a plan of action.
Figuratively and literally, now is the time to clear out the garage. Get the mechanisms in place to scale for when you emerge on the other side of the tunnel. Instead of cowering in unnecessary fear, use the surge of adrenalin that accompanies the very real dangers you’re facing, and resolve them now. This will allow you to emerge from the downturn with calmness and confidence, using the strongest reasoning power of your higher brain (and your collaboration with like-minded others) to marshal your power, rehearse your strengths, and put the power to use as the economy re-opens.