The Fears Leaders Never Speak of (And How AQAL, Zen, and the Chinese New Year Can Help)

February 21st, 2013
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What keeps you up at night? It's a favorite question asked of senior leaders, whether they're being interviewed on a talk show, addressing a company town hall meeting, or speaking to a group of leaders-in-training. "I worry that we're not moving fast enough," is a common answer to this question, "That what made us great won't keep us great." Another says, "I've picked two areas to change and I don't know if I picked the right two." Most leaders are conscious of at least a short list of worries, and for some, it's a badge of honor to take those worries quite seriously. What leaders are not so conscious of are the fears underlying their worries, and how those fears shape the story of how they'll deal with those macro-level concerns.


The fears leaders never speak of – except in private conversations, and often not even there – are fears like these:


I'm afraid I'm not good enough. I'm afraid I'll screw up. I'm afraid of damaging my reputation. I'm afraid of losing my power. I'm afraid of disappointing people. I'm afraid of losing my job. I'm afraid if I lose this job I won't be anything. I'm afraid for my health. I'm afraid of death.


Figure 1. Maslow’s Hierarchy and sample fears around unmet needs  

Everyday life gives us endless distraction from these fears – in fact, the busier the better. I can be plenty angry at the driver who just cut me off on the expressway, for example, without realizing he triggered my fear of not being respected (i.e., powerful enough). I can be productively checking items off my to-do list without noticing that only by performing do I mask a fear of not being good enough. I can be caught in ambivalence around a tough decision without fully seeing how my fear of people being angry at me paralyzes my thinking. You may think your fears don't run so deep, but these fears come with what it means to be human, as we can see by the needs of Maslow's hierarchy (Figure 1). We need such things as air, water, food, security, affiliation, and so on. As biological systems, our prime instinct is to keep living, and as that instinct is expressed through ego and action, we will do all that we can to keep our needs met. The flip-side fear is that our needs will not be met. While some of us have more than others, none of us are immune to all fears.



While we aren't immune to our fears, we might be ignorant of them. "Ignorant" doesn't mean stupid – I mistakenly equated those words for a long time – it means to ignore something. And when it comes to fears, we ignore them at our peril. Fears do their dirtiest work in the dark and from a distance: the less we're aware of them, the more we give them leverage over us. Like Archimedes' lever that, if long enough, could move the whole earth, molehill fears we push out of sight, out of mind, can have a mountainous effect on us.


For example, show me a leader who struggles with work-life balance and I'll show you one who is caught between competing needs and the fears that go with them. On the one hand is the need for achievement or personal power and, on the other hand, a need for family affiliation or physical rest. At the level of motivational needs, this tussle might seem benign, but look for the root fears underneath and you'll find things like: I'm afraid I'm only as good as my last gig. I have to achieve again, or I'm not as valuable. If I don't spend more time with my son, I'll be a failure as a parent. I'm afraid I'm losing my marriage. I'm afraid I don't have the energy I used to have. Makes one's stomach knot just thinking about it. Indeed, we often somaticize the tension associated with these unconscious fears (calling it something abstract like "stress"); if we've put them out of mind, that energy has to go somewhere.


But there's an even worse side effect to burying our fears: we remain stuck to the dot of self who has them. They become a neurotic loop in our story, for example, being one who's always in a hurry, trying to catch up, trying to knock one more item off her to-do list because achievement reduces an unspoken anxiety. Or the person who subtlely sabotages his own success because at least he can control the failure he fears. Or the leader who arrogantly sticks to his short-sighted opinions because to admit another view would be a chink in the armor that he thinks protects his power. Fears make us too small and they make leadership too small. And yet, they come with being human.


Figure 2. “Out There” maps to “In Here”  

So if we're bound to have fears and ignoring them makes matters worse, what makes things better? It's simple, but not easy: become our fear. This is a crucial flip in realizing the Zen Leader in us, for it not only makes us fearless, but able to take away the fears of others. We bring our fears so close, merge with them completely, that they can no longer define us. How do we do this? You might want to follow along by downloading this fear-flipping exercise from The Zen Leader and try it out on one of your own fears. You'll find that an Integral perspective is a great starting place. If we take an all-quadrant-all-level (AQAL) view, we recognize that anything we experience as happening "out there" in the world arises with something going on "in here". Objectively, I may say "it" happened this way (e.g., "The driver cut me off") or "they" did that (e.g., "The rich get richer"), but every negatively tinged "it" or "they" in my world has a corresponding need/fear in the quadrant of "I". If I sincerely look for it, I will find it, as in the examples of Figure 2. Likewise in the quadrant of "we", I may say "we" are this way or that (e.g., "we don't talk like we used to"). But every negative "we" event has a corresponding need/fear in the quadrant of "I." While there are many things "out there" that we cannot change, once we see what needs and fears they trigger in the quadrant of "I", we have all the power in the world to shift our reactions.



Mapping into the quadrant of "I", or what I call "seeing into the mirror", is the first step toward being free of our fears. What we first see in the mirror may be only the tip of the iceberg. I may see, for example, that I try to do too much myself rather than team up or delegate because I enjoy achieving and feeling useful. While that may be true, it's only the sunny side of the story. What's the dark side? Why must I always be achieving? What am I afraid of if I'm not usefully achieving? And what might that lead to? This sort of probing to find the root of our fears is the second step toward freedom. And we want to keep digging until we get to the bottom of it. For example:


  • Why must I always be achieving?...because I enjoy it. I like feeling useful
  • What am I afraid of if I'm not achieving?...that I'm useless. Not on the fast track. Not a go-to person
  • And what might that lead to?... being overlooked..left out…maybe even losing job security
  • And what might that lead to?...depression…worthlessness…loneliness
  • And what might that lead to?...isn't that bad enough? It'd be an awful life…may as well be dead


We know we're at the bottom when we run up against one of the basic fears associated with Maslow's hierarchy or the fear of death, which underlies all of them. Sometimes our digging will take us forward into things we fear may happen to us. Other times our probing will take us into our past, to when these fears were triggered in us as children and how we first learned to respond. The more we find the root, the more we'll find many paths back to the same root fear on Maslow's hierarchy. This is really useful.


Why? Because once we shine the light of awareness on our fear, it starts to lose its power over us. It loses even more power as we move into it and take up the space our fear would otherwise occupy. Embrace it, "Yes, this is me, this is one of the cards I've been dealt. Now how do I want to play it?" As soon as we see the fear as a card in our hand, we become bigger than it. It no longer defines us. We can claim our power, stand in our fear and declare our larger intent. For example:


  • Self Actualization / Achievement: I'm going to be so worthless the team thinks they did it without me.
  • Affiliation: I can't control if this person likes me, but I'm going to help her anyway.
  • Security: I may be broke and back to waiting tables, but I will do whatever it takes to realize this vision.


Can you feel the bigness, the freedom of these intents? That first line, by the way, is one of Sun Tzu's definitions of a great leader. And the last line was something I told myself when I left my secure job at NASA to write my first book. It was the first time in my career that I did something totally irrational. And it was the first time my Zen training had penetrated deeply enough that I could glimpse that there was no place to be lost to, that whatever happened, I would find the energy to handle it.


For Zen training erases something critical to the maintenance of fears: it exposes the ego at its game, and that game is the grandest of all identity theft. The ego pretends it's who we are and uses fear to keep its game going. The more we chop into our fears by facing them, becoming them, the bigger we become. But the ego will still morph around this new bigness and claim it for itself. For this is what ego does: it is our internal integrator in the world of form. And we absolutely need the ego to do its job in order for us to play the game of life. As Ken Wilber aptly observed, "We'd be psychotic without one." But to mistake the ego for who we are is to miss our boundless nature: the absolute stillness in which our movement arises, which is also us; the absolute emptiness in which our form manifests, which is also us. Once we sense our self in this boundlessness and this boundlessness in our self, we can help our ego face its fears – one at a time as they arise in the game of life – trusting that as we merge with each scary, mini-death-like fear, we create space for greater life. Like a snake shedding its skin to grow larger, we shed old fears that no longer serve, expanding our capacity as each one falls away.


Even the Chinese New Year celebrated this month can support us in our efforts, as it offers a timely image to remind us not only to speak, but become, our greatest fears that we may shed them. For it is, appropriately enough, the Year of the Snake. May we all use it well!


About the author: Dr. Ginny Whitelawis a leadership expert and Zen master in the Chozen-ji line of Rinzai Zen. She is the author of The Zen Leader (, President of Focus Leadership, and founder of the Institute for Zen Leadership (

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Thank you Ginny very usefull info......I want to share  a question that frees my ego up... I ask the question...How do I know when I have made it ? ....I was born therefor I have made it.... Thus the game of life can be played from a sence of completion as an option to the game of competition.

Thank you Ginny very usefull info......I want to share  a question that frees my ego up... I ask the question...How do I know when I have made it ? ....I was born therefor I have made it.... Thus the game of life can be played from a sence of completion as an option to the game of competition.

Thank you Ginny, for the succinctness and brevity of shining a light on fear. Enormously helpful.

Thank you for this take on fear, Dr. Ginny.

agreed Carlito!  the ego is discussed wisely in this essay (me thinks) - given a valid role but not the whole canvas.  thanks Ginny! 

I see a fundamental misunderstanding with fears: fear of being nothing if one is not achieving corresponds to self esteem level of development, not to selfactualization. Level of self actualizaton is the first level of metaneeds. It is being needs, not deficiancy. So there is not such fears like being nothing on this level. You are already all, you are fulness on this level of development. Of course, you keep previous levels fears with you, but they dont have their former strenght.