Martin Luther King said, "We must build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear."
I've interviewed several combat veterans. Most admit to being afraid. But there are two reasons soldiers are able to conquer their fear:
They have extensive training.
They're emotionally invested in their team.
Training helps a soldier remain calm in the face of chaos. He or she knows what to do, so their response is automatic.
Commitment to their team is what prompts a soldier to put his or her skills to use in dire situations. Putting yourself in the service of a cause bigger than yourself gives you more courage than if you were just trying to do something for yourself.
In the moment of battle, it's not the fear of the drill sergeant that prompts a soldier to charge forward, it's the commitment to the team. History is filled with examples of men and women who overcame their fear and adversity on behalf of something bigger than themselves.
Thankfully, business doesn't carry the same risks as battle. But it does require courage.
As a leader your job is to take fear off the table. When you take fear off the table, you enable people to act in a bold and courageous manner, no matter how dire the circumstances.
You can't eliminate fear, but you can give your team the skills to overcome it. Just like the military, you help people conquer fear through:
Commitment to the team
Training enables people to act in the face of uncertainty. Reminding people that they're part of something bigger than themselves increases their commitment to the team.
Taking fear off the table doesn't mean being a softie. The best leaders set high standards, but the high standards are in the service of an important goal or cause.
Steve Jobs was notoriously demanding. He even berated people. But he still attracted and retained a team of A-plus players because they knew that he was committed to excellence on behalf of the customer.
This is an important distinction. I don't advocate screaming at your team. But if the boss is clear about the larger purpose, top performers don't resent high standards; they appreciate them.
Having a purpose is what keeps top performers engaged. Everyone wants to be part of something bigger than themselves. Whether it's developing great products or making a difference to your customers, having a larger purpose is what inspires people to go the extra mile.
Fear is a given, in business, and in life. But there's a big difference between being afraid of your boss, and being afraid of letting your team down.
When you're afraid of your boss, you go into protection mode. You cover things up, you finger point, you avoid responsibility.
When you're afraid of letting your team down, you give it your all. You step into responsibility because you care about the team and your cause more than you care about yourself.
There isn't a leader (or parent) alive who hasn't pulled it out of their gut because they knew their team needed them. This is one of the great things about being human.
Courage isn't the absence of fear; it's the ability to act in the face of fear.
Having a purpose and caring about your team builds a dike of courage to hold back the flood of fear.
Lisa Earle McLeod is the author of "The Triangle of Truth," which the Washington Post named as a "Top Five Book for Leaders."