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Fear, Failure, Forward


Fear, Failure, Forward

As his battle with cancer was ending, the late, great Steve Jobs said this about fear and failure: “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.” A little dark, but very true. At some point we will not be in position to make choices. So why do we give our time, power, and peace away to fear?

Jobs was no stranger to risk-taking, failure, and starting over. Back in 1985, Jobs was in a fight for his life at Apple. With the Macintosh PC on the cusp of release to the public, a squabble was underway inside the tech company as to how to price the innovative technology. Jobs fought for a low number to keep the Macintosh on par with its competitors and promote robust sales; Job’s opponents sought a higher price to combat Apple’s staggering debt load. While Job’s knew that a contrary view would put him in opposition to other execs at Apple, he also recognized that keeping the price of a new product out of reach for most consumers meant giving competitors even more leverage over the market. Jobs lost the debate. The high-priced Mac missed sales expectations, compounding Apple’s financial woes. Jobs got jettisoned from the company he helped to create. Did he regret fighting for the success of Macintosh? Not for a minute. Several years later, Apple was begging its maverick cofounder to come back home to right the ship.

Fear sinks many professionals and scuttles many organizations. The reason is straightforward. The failure to act at a pivotal moment is the same as giving away your power. Those who aspire to lead must always be willing to speak and move even when the outcome is opaque. So how do leaders overcome fear? They lean into uncertainty, act in accord with values, and learn from mistakes.

Every organization prefers order. By order I mean time-tested patterns of decision making, administration, staffing, etc. amid an environment that is stable and predictable. Has there been a lot of order in the market lately? When a crisis or long-term market adjustment impacts the health of an organization, the willingness and ability to triage a problem, keep morale high, and motivate the team to respond becomes essential. Instead of fearing the unknown, lead from the front. Assume the crisis will come, the market will change, and the fixes will not be so obvious. Leaning into uncertainty will help you become a nimble leader who can overcome fear with competence.

Sometimes we are willing to do something but become paralyzed by the fear of making the wrong decisions. The rule of thumb here is to act within the framework of one’s personal and organizational values. Jobs built Apple to be attune to the needs and preferences of the consumer. Keeping the price of a Macintosh low fit within this values framework even if the approach impacted profitability.

The best antidote to fear is to accept the fact that you will make mistakes. If you have told yourself in advance that your decision may go sideways, then great outcomes have the power to build confidence while poor outcomes are reframed as opportunities to gain experience. Not all of Job’s products were commercial and technological success. However, all of them provided opportunities to get better at the work and build the next excellent product.
Fear and failure? They are part of the gig, my friends. Leverage them both to move you and your organization forward.