The monster under the bed — Founder fear and gaps in emotional volume
I had a conversation with a founder recently about fear. How to survive it, beat it back but mostly how to operate with it close by. Fear is like a monster under the bed — no one knows it is there but you and the only way to get rid of it is to have the courage to turn on the light, ask someone to hold your hand, and look under the bed.
In my time as a leader at 2 start-ups I was always scared. Fear is a powerful emotion and it affected everything I did. It was a motivator and a driver but also an omnipresent discomfort that made it hard to sleep, sometimes made it hard to eat and made it hard to connect with other people.
No matter how well it was going and no matter how fast we were moving I was always scared something would go wrong. The gap between where we were and where I felt like we should be never closed — no matter how hard i worked I was never satisfied. Sometime my feelings were shared by my team, but as the founder or the leader of the team, I believe I felt the fear most intensely.
Watch for this emotional gap because it can make it hard to communicate and impossible to motivate and to get the best out of your team.
Over time, I realized it was very hard for my team to hear the constructive guidance and quality creative ideas I had — as everything came wrapped in an envelope of fear — fear of being behind and failing before we even started; fear of not getting it right because I over delegated; fear of not getting it right because I micro-managed; fear of failing in ways large and small that were constantly chasing me. I was always trying to run faster and didn’t get why no one else saw the monster chasing me or felt that it was about to catch them and eat them alive.
Imagine a conversation where one person is always yelling. It would be hard to hear the content of what they are saying because you would be distracted and focused on figuring out why they are yelling. In my experience the volume of your voice and emotional intensity have a similar impact. My style was not emotional, I did not yell at people etc, but the fear drove my emotional volume up to 11 (I thought I was hiding it, but everyone could see it) — and this made it hard for me to lead.
For me, the only way out of this cycle was to help everyone see the monster — I had to describe it to them in detail and get their help fighting him off. Opening up like this was not easy — the terms “our fearless leader” came from somewhere — but I found my path to effective leadership started with admitting how scared I really was. Yours might too.