Are you lost? Follow your fear.

What if I told you that the way you experience fear should be a positive reaction and not a negative? What if I told you the definition you were given to explain the idea of fear was wrong? What if I told you fear was the thing you’re supposed to find and not avoid?

Fear is traditionally defined as “an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.”

I’d like to challenge that definition and offer one that leaders can use to reframe how we feel about fear. I’d like to redefine fear as “an emotion that alerts us to the presence of a risk.” Yes, it is still unpleasant. Yes, it feels the same no matter what definition you adopt.

However, leadership isn’t about navigating away from risk, it is about navigating through it. We don’t merely want to avoid risks because taking risks is how we achieve what others do not. Overcoming risk brings out the best parts of our human selves. Rising to, choosing, and successfully overcoming risk is what sets leaders, companies, and products apart. Our fullest selves are the selves that triumph, not that avoid. Nobody goes home, opens the door and yells to their family that they achieved a day without risks! They say, today I took a risk and accomplished something life-changing!

Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth. -Pema Chödrön

We use fear as a minesweeper; it alerts us to danger, but it also lets us know we’re close enough to the danger to be in the right place to make a difference. It’s an indicator that a phenomenal opportunity may be just around the corner. Fear can be our ally, here to urge us on, heighten our senses, and give us the clarity to proceed with caution. Too often we turn away from the discomfort of fear, though. To avoid this, we must condition ourselves and train the way that athletes and the military do: to be comfortable with discomfort, to function well and thrive under physical conditions that don’t feel relaxed and comfortable.

Following fear isn’t just a method for personal decision making. In a webinar I led, I advocated using client fear to drive risk analysis. Many risks aren’t taken by you as the leader or expert in your profession; they are taken by your customers when they trust you or taken by those entrusted to you. If you study their fears and the risks they assume, you can use that to evaluate your risks. In this way, you begin to share their fear, feel the risk through their eyes. With them in focus, you can talk about data and trust loss, identity theft, fraud, and advanced business risks instead of talking about the tired, old “geographical storms and building fires” in your risk analysis. Your company and your customers will be better for it.

I recently met someone who describes what they do as “client advocate.” First of all, that’s an inspiring description. Secondly, do you think this person steers those entrusted to them around fear? Around risk? Or does this person help them navigate and overcome it? The latter, of course. Fear is our guide. It’s a yellow arrow—not a red light. A leader must be a customer advocate. They must guide their teams through fear, feel the fear with them, and overcome it together with them—not lead around and away from it.

Great leaders trust fear.

I advocate that leaders keep fear both present and positive. (You do need both of those.) You need to begin rewiring yourself to think about fear often and to think about it as positive. Why often? Because routine is key. Keeping your mental tools sharp requires consistent practice. Why positive? Because if you let your fear occupy a negative mind-space, you will avoid it. Fear is one of the biological ways your body speaks to you. The outcome of failing to listen to it might be dire, but no channel of communication with your mind or your body should be regarded as purely negative.

Once you evolve to keep fear in mind often and keep it in a positive mind space, then the question is, how do I use it?

We can break fear down into a few helpful questions that we can use to identify what our senses are telling us. The first is a “what” question. What happens if I fail to correctly navigate the situation that is causing my fear reaction? The answer could be, if I fail to navigate this situation correctly, I could experience mental anguish (i.e., a negative fear analysis). Let's look at the positive, though. What if not navigating the fear correctly could cause us to not take a chance that results in a long-lasting friendship that leads to founding a company together someday? More often than not, the positive response is more compelling than the negative response.

Here are three examples of the types of fear that most often rob us of opportunity, that I’d recommend you use reconsider framing them positively.

  1. The fear of inadequacy. Let me let you in on a little secret. We’re all inadequate sometimes. That’s why they call it “rising to a challenge.” Growth is doing something for the first time. Are you good at anything the first time? Or do you learn? As a coach, I see this fear cripple opportunity more often than not. You’re only inadequate if you let the fear stop you.
  2. The fear of change. Growth is a form of change. Living is a form of change. Relationships are a form of change. Leadership cannot be separated from the idea of change. The point is, change is good. Change is life. Don’t steer away from it.
  3. The fear of failure. Another little secret. We all fail. Every. Single. Day. I fail dozens of times a day. I learn, I adapt, and I improve. Failure is our greatest teacher. Take it from Dustin Hoffman: “We don’t learn anything from success.”

So the routine is simple: when you experience fear—whether it’s in your organization, someone brings a fear to you, you feel apprehensive about doing something, or you’re trying to make a tough decision and you’re weighing the consequences—make sure you line up a positive reaction to the fear with the negative reaction and weigh them both together. Provide balance to your analysis of fear.

Of course, don’t ignore obvious warnings that could cause physical harm! I’m not advocating anyone jump out a window because they are passing up the opportunity to attempt flying, but include rational, positive analysis in your deliberation and decision-making process. I think you’ll discover that the positive analysis of fear is compelling, and you just might be encouraged to take on and successfully navigate the types of risks that not only make great leaders, but great lives. And, if you’re seeing someone struggling with fear or paralyzed by it, help them out by encouraging them to look at the positive side of the fear and risk relationship. Remember, leadership is hard. Take care of each other.

ATOM builds software. We perform all of our security and compliance work in house, and we have the leadership experience to make sure your organization is ready for the technology we build. At ATOM we believe in building a future we can trust. Whether it's helping regulated industries navigate complex commercial and regulatory environments or building products with hyper-growth companies, we believe experience makes all the difference. We'd love to show you why we do it. For more information contact us at or visit us at