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When Fear Hits By Lee Ellis

When Fear Hits: 4 Tactics to Conquer it

You’re in the midst of a leadership situation or challenge that instills fear. What do you do? In the animal kingdom, fear produces a “fight or flight” response, and it’s true with people, too. But honorable leaders see fear coming and know how to handle it, right? Let’s explore this idea.

Fear Roots and Causes

Beyond the obvious, fear is often at the root of emotions like anger, shame, guilt, and pride (false pride or hubris). It termites our self-confidence and torpedoes our personal and professional relationships, further undermining our success and goals.

Doubts and fears can also cause procrastination and resistance to reasonable and needed risk-taking, and stymie initiative to overcome obstacles and achieve success. As believers in Christ, we rest on the foundation of the scripture verse that says, “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7 KJV) How have other people managed fear in the past? I’ve witnessed it firsthand.

Fear in the POW Camps

As you might expect, fear in the POW camps of Vietnam was never more than one thought away. During my first three years when torture was an ongoing tactic, all it took were the sounds of rattling jailer keys at odd hours to create an avalanche of fear.

Even in the best times, isolation, loneliness, and poor health without medical care could raise doubts that could blossom into full-blown fear. In time, together we learned some tactics to combat doubts and fear that have universal application.

If you’re a leader in the midst of a challenge or battle, if your goals are being threatened, or if you’re not sure whether your new ideas will be accepted, be encouraged and take heart from the wisdom of the POW camps.

4 Tactics to Conquer Fears and Doubts

These tactics might be just what is needed to help take your fearful thoughts and actions captive and reach new milestones –

(1) Fear is Normal—Learn to Proactively Manage 

Fear can help us deal with legitimate external threats as well as trigger adrenaline and other chemicals that help us. When my aircraft blew up over enemy territory—right over the gunners that were shooting at me—my fear of dying in the immediate crash helped me make the decision to eject immediately—even into the middle of the militia gunners below. As I was descending via a “nylon letdown”, my focus was not on my fear but on how I could escape capture.

The lesson is that we can train and equip ourselves to make logical choices that manage our fears (instead of our fears managing us).

(2) When Fear Hits, Stick With Your Values and Principles

Even when we’re overwhelmed, we still have choices about how we’ll respond. As the hours, days, weeks, and months went by, the POWs worked out a philosophy to navigate our fears. We engaged in an internal battle to make choices that were aligned with our values, mission, vision, goals, and commitments. Through this struggle to keep our commitments, we grew in courage, and that is the greatest antidote to fear.

Once a leader clarifies what is really important, he or she can make courageous choices to achieve goals even when faced with doubts and fears. Need a set of values? Download the complimentary Honor Code.

(3) Be Willing to Suffer for the Right Causes.

Great achievements are generally the culmination of a lot of delayed gratification, making hard choices and doing hard things—and yes, suffering. So when you look ahead at your goals, consider your passion for them. Is your passion and commitment strong enough that you’re willing to suffer to achieve them? If so, then you’ll be able to lean into your doubts and fears to do what is needed. Our goal as POWs was to return with honor. Through our willingness to suffer, we walked through our fears and came out victorious on the other side. You can do the same.

(4) Don’t Fight Fear Alone.

The worst situation as a POW was being alone. The same is true for every human being. We need connection to others who can support us with wisdom and encouragement. Mutual support is the critical need of every warrior and every person who is fighting the battles of life. Engage with your key support team to help you courageously lean into the pain of your doubts and fears. As a leader, you also have the power to create this culture of support.

Fears and doubts are part of life and especially a big part of leadership. Thankfully, we have ways to manage them. Lean into the pain of your fear and do the right thing—believe in yourself—I believe in you.


Lee Ellis is the president of Leadership Freedom® LLC, a leadership and team development consulting and coaching company. He consults with Fortune 500 senior executives in the areas of hiring, team building, human performance, and succession planning. His media appearances include interviews on CNN, CBS This Morning, C-SPAN, ABC World News, and Fox News Channel. A retired Air Force Colonel, his latest book is entitled Engage with Honor: Building a Culture of Courageous Accountability. Learn more at

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