All leaders have fears. Fears about their leadership role. Some are reticent to admit these fears, being reluctant to show vulnerability, but dig deep into the soul of every leader, and they’ll tell you it’s true. That’s why there’s an increasing body of literature being written on this subject. It’s real and it’s important.
To have leadership fears is not bad or wrong. It’s what you do with those fears that matter. If handled badly, these fears can paralyse leaders, making them insecure, nervous and ineffective. If handled well, these fears can empower leaders, helping through the tough times and shaping them into people with that sweet mix of authority and humility that’s at the heart of successful leadership.
There are four main leadership fears with which leaders in most walks of life identify. These are not new. In fact they’ve been experienced by leaders for thousands of years. Human history and the bible in particular give us examples of men and women who experienced these four fears. These fears relate to:
There’s no better example of someone who experienced these four fears than Moses.
Moses is one of the greatest leaders who’s ever existed. But he started as a reluctant leader. A leader with fears. The same four fears listed above. But these fears didn’t ultimately hold him back. He acknowledged them. He worked through them. At times they resurfaced as he and his people went through many struggles and were dealt with again and again. As a result history now rightly remembers Moses as the remarkable leader who led over 2 million people out of slavery in Egypt to the edge of Canaan, ready for the next stage in their history. Moses was an outstanding leader. But he didn’t start off that way. He had fears.
The story of Moses (recorded in the Book of Exodus 3&4) describes God calling him to lead the people. He knows there’s a task to fulfil. He knows this task is more than a job or a career. It’s a calling. Effective leaders know this. That there’s a purpose behind their role. But Moses is scared. Unsure. He sees the enormity of the task and wonders if he can do it. He has four fears. Fears with which all leaders can identify.
The first fear is about IDENTITY.
He asks, ‘Who am I that I should do this?’ This is not about competency but about identity. At the core of his being, he’s wondering if he’s the right person for this. Something inside of him knows he is and that he should rise to the challenge, but there’s another part of him that fears he’s not made for this. He feels weak. Insecure. He experiences shame.
This is normal. It causes leaders to examine the very core of their being and question who they are. For followers of Jesus it takes us back to our baptism when we began our journey of faith and God showed us that we’re loved, and that his affirmation is not dependent on our performance but our position as adopted into his family. Christian leaders need to lead from this place of secure sonship, knowing their identity is based first and foremost on who God is. Moses discovers this too in Exodus 3. God shows Moses who He is and how His Presence will remain with him. But at times leaders doubt all this and fear creeps in. I’ve experienced this on a number of occasions, when I’ve doubted God’s presence and lost sight of who I am. I’ve subsequently learned that this kind of identity-fear needs acknowledging and then countering by brave action. There is One greater and stronger than us whose presence empowers men and women not just do some occasional leading, but to be courageous leaders.
The second fear is about PEOPLE.
Moses knows that the role is more than a task. It’s about leading people. In fact leading people is at the heart of every leadership role. As is sometimes said: if no-one is following you, then you’re not a leader! Moses knows this and realises that he needs to win over the hearts of his people. But can he? Will he? He questions whether they will embrace his rallying-cry. He fears the people and their response.
Fearing those we’re called to lead is not unusual. I’ve spoken to many leaders over the years who fear their people and whether they’ll follow their lead. Effective leaders do not dismiss this fear altogether. Rather they turn it into incredible respect for the people they’re leading, wanting to listen, to love and to lead them. They serve and honour those they lead. This does not always mean that all decisions made will be well received by everyone. Sometimes certain actions and motives will be misunderstood and some will be reluctant to follow. Leaders can’t always bring everyone with them, but they must try, replacing fear of people with a right fear/reverence for God and servant-heartedness towards the people. This is leading like Jesus.
The third fear is VISION.
Moses can see what needs to be done. The people must be set free from being slaves in Egypt, and travel to a new land – the ‘promised’ land – to start a new life. But is this really the right vision? Is this the right time? Is this actually a God-given idea, or just his own grandiose plan? What will people think?
All good leaders think this. And rightly so. Because visionary leaders need their vision testing. They must be sure that their plan is not just a ‘good idea’ but a ‘God idea’. So questioning vision is a positive thing. It requires the buy-in and help of others. That’s why vision needs to be shared, as Moses did with Aaron and with other senior officials of his people. It also needs divine help. In fact the bigger the vision, the more it should drive a leader to their knees in prayer. As Mark Batterson says (in a quote I have on the mantle-piece in my study):
‘Nothing honours God more than a big dream that is why beyond our ability to accomplish it. Why? Because there’s no way we can take credit for it. And nothing is better for our spiritual development than a big dream because it keeps us on our knees in raw dependence on God.’
The fourth fear is ABILITY.
Finally, Moses questions whether he has the ability to lead. In particular he knows he’s not a natural word-smith and not a great speaker and he fears clamming up in public. Has he got the gifts and skills to lead? Is he competent? If you’re an astute leader you’ll be aware of your abilities, listen to feedback and know which are your strong and weak skills. Moses knows and as a result is fearful of public speaking. He realises that speaking is going to be important in the leadership role he’s called to. Surely, he thinks, doesn’t his fear of speaking exclude him? No. Because skills can be learned. He can grow. And he can compensate with other leaders around him (like his brother Aaron who is a gifted speaker).
This reminds us that fearing our abilities is a natural response to the call to be a leader. But with intentional passion and perseverance, many skills can be learned and this fear overcome. I know this. I’ve been learning the art of leadership for over twenty-five years and my skill-base is still growing – and needs to grow! I also know too that I’m not meant to lead on my own. Leaders are called to teamwork and mustn’t be threatened to gather co-leaders who have stronger gifts in some areas than us. That’s how the vision gets fulfilled – by leading with a strong team with complementary gifts.
Moses’ story reminds us that leaders are not immune from fear. In fact fear is natural and to be expected. There are all sorts of fears but these four – relating to identity, people, vision and ability – are the most common.
These four fears of leadership do not have to inhibit our leading. Rather they need exposing and turning for good. Great leaders acknowledge their fears. Great leaders rise above their fears. Great leaders come to realise they have nothing to fear.
‘God has not given us a Spirit of fear, but of power, love and self-discipline’ (2 Timothy 1:7).