How to Overcome Fear to Handle the Hard Thing

AdVance Leadership » How to Overcome Fear to Handle the Hard Thing

Welcome to Friday 411, issue #030. In 4 minutes, with 1 insight and 1 action, you’ll be equipped to overcome fear and Handle the Hard Things leadership demands.

1 Insight

Leadership is hard. Leading requires making hard decisions, having hard conversations, and taking hard actions. One principle of making leadership easier is also one of its greatest paradoxes: Handle the Hard Thing.

On any given day as a leader, you might need to:

  • Talk to a team member about needing to improve her performance.
  • Choose between several potential strategies that may result in a desired outcome.
  • Encourage your team to up their game to meet a deadline that seems impossible.
  • Disappoint people by not giving them the resources they think they need.
  • Delegate more work to someone who already feels stretched to the max.
  • Call one person to tell them that they got the job and ten others to tell them that they didn’t.
  • Let an employee go.
  • At home, solve challenging problems with your partner or kids.

All these leadership responsibilities are hard. Here is the extra challenge: our brains are wired to find the easiest way to do things. While our minds constantly seek out ways to make things easier, leadership requires doing Hard Things. If you want to lead well, there is no getting out it.

Yet many leaders believe they can get out of doing Hard Things. They make the choice of leading easy instead of leading well.

Throughout our years of working with leaders, we’ve observed that most of the time, most leaders know what decision they need to make, conversation they need to have, or action they need to take. But because it’s hard, they haven’t done it. We’ve identified four responses when leaders are faced with a Hard Thing:

  1. Hope
    Leaders hope that things will get better, that everything will work out in the end. They hope that the individual will “get their act together” or “figure out what they’re supposed to do.”When it comes to Hard Things, hope is a terrible strategy. It only leads to more frustration. If everyone’s brain is wired to take the easy route, then hoping someone else will Handle the Hard Thing when you’re unwilling to is a lost cause.


  2. Hold Off
    When confronted with a hard decision, conversation, or action, we’ve heard leaders say:

    • “I’ll deal with this situation when…(fill in the blank with scenarios).”
    • Or, “I’ll wait to have this conversation until his yearly review.”
    • Or “I can’t let this toxic person go because we wouldn’t have enough people to do the work. I’ll wait until we can hire another person.”

    No matter the issue, holding off will only exacerbate it. By procrastinating Handling the Hard Thing, you’re only giving it time to fester and spread, leading to more and weightier Hard Things.

  3. Hand Off
    Leaders say, “I’m not the right person to deal with this hard situation. I think X Person would do a better job at this.”I (Garland) once started working for an organization with a small staff that reported to me. My first week on the job, an executive informed me that one of my direct reports had been causing major problems for over a year. When I asked the executive what had been done to deal with this issue, he responded, “We decided that it would be better to wait until we hired your position and let you make those decisions.”

    My first two months on the job were spent dealing with his poor performance, working with HR to terminate him, and then reassuring the rest of the staff that their jobs weren’t in jeopardy. All of this because someone else avoided the Hard Thing by handing it off to me.

    Handing Off rarely solves the challenge. It not only prolongs the frustration, but also multiplies it by involving more people.

  4. Handle It

This is the only choice that leaders should make. If you’re a leader of character, you handle the tough decisions, conversations, and actions. It won’t be easy. Leading with character never is.

How to Handle the Hard Things

Handling the Hard Thing starts with doing another Hard Thing first—defying your fear. Fear is the primary prohibitor of Handling Hard Things. You may be afraid of some consequence: hurting the person’s feelings, losing the person, not being liked anymore. You must handle your fear before you can Handle the Hard Thing.

Overcome your fear in 5 steps:

Step 1: Define the problem, decision, or action. 

The first step is to get crystal clear on the problem that you need to solve. A problem well-defined is a problem half-solved.

Step 2: Describe your fear. 

What is it that you’re actually afraid of? When you can describe your fear, it stops being as scary.

Step 3: Identify the potential payoff. 

What’s on the other side of your fear? Navy Seals talk about this as a strategy for overcoming their fear of engaging in a gun fight. If an enemy is shooting at them, they’re afraid of dying or that their friends will die. But the payoff on the other side could be everyone stays alive.

Step 4: Ask “Is the payoff worth the risk?” 

If you look at the potential payoff and say, “yes the risk is worth it,” you must act. In the case of Navy Seals engaging in a gun fight, the potential payoff of keeping everyone alive is worth facing the fear.

If the potential payoff isn’t worth the risk, don’t do anything.

Step 5: Act in spite of fear. 

The only way to overcome fear is to decide to do it, then act. Fear rarely dissipates when you try to reason with yourself. Nor does it shrink when you take a long time to move. Your emotions follow your motion.

As a leader, you must become comfortable with Handling the Hard Thing. Ultimately, you make your life and the life of others much easier when you choose to Handle the Hard Thing as quickly as possible.

1 Action

This week, think of a hard situation you’ve been unwilling to act on. Take your issue through the 5 Steps of Overcoming Fear.


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