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Fear(less) leadership: How to recalibrate your stress response

Fearless leadership requires you to be aware of your anxiety and get curious about its roots so you can use it for "rocket fuel," writes Rebecca Heiss.

6 min read


fear(less) leadership

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Rebecca Heiss

In a world plagued by stress, anxiety and fear lurking in our news feeds and infiltrating our thoughts, how does one break away to become a fear(less) leader? Before answering that, we must understand the difference between being fearless and fear(less). It seems subtle on the page but not in practice. 

Our brains aren’t designed for today’s world

Too often, in times of uncertainty, leaders act fearless — putting on bold, brave faces and charging into the unknown recklessly. Scary times don’t call for fearless leaders. We don’t need a gladiator jumping into an arena with the hungry tiger. Instead, times of fear and uncertainty call for leaders to become fear(less) — aware of and consciously able to sort through what is truly scary and deserves careful consideration and what is causing undue stress and anxiety without being a real threat.  

Evolutionarily, our brains are built to treat all stress similarly — with a fight/flight/freeze reaction to ensure we don’t end up as food in that hungry tiger’s jowl.  But the reality we live in today is no longer an “eat or be eaten” world. That email won’t kill you, but our bodies treat it as such. When it comes to stress and fear, we have outdated and uninformed brains. Take, for example, the illogical view Americans have about shark attacks. Fifty-one percent of Americans are terrified of sharks, most of whom won’t go swimming. This is even though only five people succumb to shark attacks globally yearly. We are 800 times more likely to choke on a bite of food than die from a shark attack. 

When it comes to living and leading in modern times, we can’t allow illogical fears and stress mechanisms to drive our behaviors. Being a fear(less) leader is all about understanding how our brains will interpret the risks initially and then taking the time to calculate the actual costs of both action and inaction in making the next move. Fearing less means using our brains, not just bravado, in the face of fear

Stress can give your life more meaning

While a fearless leader views stress as an adversary to fight against, a leader who is fear(less) recognizes that this approach only hinders our ability to embrace stress as an adventure that can increase productivity and render our work and lives more meaningful. You read that right. Stress makes our lives more meaningful

According to a 2013 study, those who had experienced many stressful life events were most likely to find their lives meaningful. Additionally, those who reported being under significant stress at the time of the study also rated their lives as more meaningful. The study even found that time spent worrying about the future was associated with a greater sense of meaning. 

Fear(less) leaders understand that avoiding stress might provide temporary relief, but it hinders personal and organizational progress in the long run. By shifting their focus from the ordeal of stress to an adventure, they create a culture of innovation and resilience within their teams. I call this the adventure mindset. We need stress to perform at our highest level (that’s why world records get broken in competition and not practice), but leaders often try to either 1) minimize stress or 2) allow it to consume them and their teams. 

Leaders need to understand that your body releases almost the identical cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters when you’re stressed and anxious about a problem, as when you’re excited about it. That means that interpreting all those bodily signals is genuinely up to you. Do you want to have an adventure in this moment or an ordeal?

Perceive your stress as an adventure

An adventurous perspective on stress cultivates a growth mindset, allowing leaders and their teams to perceive obstacles as opportunities for learning and growth.  Sounds good. So, how do we do we do that? 

To become fear(less) leaders, we must rewire our brains and transform stress from a debilitating force into a transformative ally. This can be thought of as a form of karate — using the energy of anxiety and fear and transforming it into rocket fuel. Here’s the ABC’s on perceiving stress as an adventure:

A is for Awareness. Awareness is always the first step. Don’t deny or try to charge into the stressor. Don’t do anything with it for three minutes. Set an alarm clock and allow yourself to worry and feel all the stress of the problem for those full three minutes. Trying to ignore it is like telling yourself not to think about pink elephants right now. It’s all you would think about – the same way you would about your stressful situation. We have to name our stressors before we can tame them. Go ahead and permit yourself to be fully aware of the issue. 

B is for Breathe. Let’s put the problem into context. If you’re not dead after the first three minutes of worrying, this problem isn’t a tiger, so you aren’t going to die. Therefore, the fight/flight/freeze response that came up isn’t helpful unless it’s transformed. You can begin that process by taking two slow, deep breaths to ground yourself and regain control of that subconscious reactionary state. 

C is for Curiosity. Finally, get curious. Ask a question. Any one question to begin! There is no such thing as a bad question. The state of curiosity allows our brain to complete the transformation out of fear. Curiosity and fear literally cannot co-exist. No brain mechanism provides for it. For more than 200,000 years of human evolution, no one ever had a tiger charging them and stopped to ask, “Huh, I wonder how fast it’s coming?” Because there is no way for curiosity and fear to coexist, asking a question at this moment sets us on the path of having an adventure rather than wallowing in the ordeal.

Fear(less) leadership is not about eradicating fear or stress from our lives. Instead, it’s about acknowledging fear’s presence, understanding its impact and leveraging it as a source of strength and growth. By reframing stress as an adventure, we can unlock our true potential as leaders, making more precise decisions and inspiring others to do the same. Embrace stress as a worthy companion on your journey, and it will guide you toward the heights of productivity and success.


Rebecca Heiss, Ph.D., is an evolutionary biologist and stress physiologist who empowers the current and next generation of leaders to live more, fear(less) lives.  Heiss is the author of INSTINCT, and founder of icueity, a 360-review app and self-awareness tool that gives users continuous, valuable, anonymous feedback from people they trust that confirms or contradicts what they believe to be true about themselves.

Opinions expressed by SmartBrief contributors are their own.


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