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2010 has been the year of the great stall. The world marketplace has shifted dramatically, and our society can’t stop talking, reading, and writing about it. Yet many of us haven’t gone much further than talk. We haven’t done anything yet. The decisions, changes, and actions needed to actually deal with the new marketplace have been missing in action.

Why doesn’t anything seem to be happening? Fear — that insidious feeling that grips the gut with unrelenting tenacity has been ruling the day.

My friend and client David Geller, CEO of GV Financial Advisors, focuses on “helping successful people use their wealth to create the life they desire.” As such, he has spent a great deal of time researching happiness and the fears that prevent us from getting there.

David tells of a talented attorney friend who didn’t enjoy practicing law any more. However, despite years of talking about doing work he didn’t enjoy, the lawyer kept on working. He failed to make a change despite what his gut was telling him. So David issued a challenge: “You’ve spent 1500 hours this year doing something you don’t enjoy because you’re fearful of an uncertain future. But the future is always uncertain — that won’t change.  Instead, focus on the things that ARE certain – things you know you can rely on.” In this case, David’s friend has a great marriage to a successful executive, is very smart, works incredibly hard, and possesses transferable skills in unraveling complexity and creating future strategies. Despite those realities and opportunities, he hasn’t yet made a change; the attorney is still allowing fear to rule his life.

David also points to “The Happiness Hypothesis,” in which writer Jonathon Haidt uses a metaphor of a rider atop an elephant. The rider represents the “the seat of reason and logic” while the elephant is “gut feelings, visceral reactions, emotions, and intuitions.” “The elephant and the rider each have their own intelligence, and when they work together well they enable the unique brilliance of human beings,” Haidt writes.

We need that elephant – he’s our gut, our emotions, our warning system. However, we still need to ride and steer, because if we let the elephant run wild, we’re headed for a lot of trouble.

Right now, many of our elephants are running wild because we’re too fearful to take control. We all need to figure out how to quiet the fear, tame the elephant and make reasonable, rational, logical decisions to take control in 2011.

Marketing guru Seth Godin explains it another way in his blog:

  • “This better work” is the thinking of safety, of proven, of beyond blame.
  • This might work,” on the other hand, is the thinking of art, innovation and insight.

Do you see the difference? “This better work” is driven by fear. “This might work” is making a decision to move forward.

A reactive strategy isn’t courageous

Here’s another way to think about fear: being proactive versus reactive. It’s easy for companies to become reactive and passive, particularly when a market is booming, since anyone can do well in a booming market.  But a reactive strategy is short lived, because the minute the market declines, reactive companies suffer most.

Is your company reactive?  Well, how quickly do you drop your prices just to snag a deal? Are you selling to any customer who knocks on your door? Are you responding to Requests for Proposals?  Launching desperate marketing tactics and praying they will solve a crisis?

Proactive leadership, on the other hand, is courageous because it requires strategic and intentional action. It requires real leadership, and many companies are desperate for that leadership right now.  The beauty of leadership is that if you, as leaders, take proactive steps, others will follow. Employees, clients, and colleagues want to follow. They’re looking now, more than ever, for someone to lead the way. Positive forward motion is contagious.

Taming the elephant

So now that we know that our problem is fear, what are we going to do about it? We have to address it in two ways. First, we have to tame fear in our companies. Second, we need to tame our own personal fears.

Five ways to tame fear and take action in your business

  1. Get data. Data will help you quantify trends in your market, your customer base, and your business performance. It will also help you see the impact of your short-term decisions.
  2. Conduct experiments. What would happen if you stopped doing X? What would happen if you start doing Y? Devise experiments to gain confidence and guide you through uncertainty.
  3. Build an advisory team of people you respect from other industries and functions. They can provide perspective that you may have never considered.
  4. Build your company’s expertise.  Perhaps the best way to overcome company fears is to build your knowledge and experience.  Send your executives and managers to new training programs; hire new employees from outside your industry; seek out seminars, consultants, forums and more.
  5. Define the issues and questions you need to resolve. If you don’t define specifically what your organization is afraid of, you won’t be able to quickly tackle and tame those issues.

Taming fear in your personal life

  1. Focus on positive things you can rely on.
  2. Identify and take small steps toward larger changes. Explore “what if” scenarios to identify the real risks in a decision, then find ways to mitigate the worst case.
  3. Exercise, eat well, and take good care of your health. Try meditation or yoga to help you stay calm and present. Pursue your hobbies and activities that you enjoy.
  4. Talk with a friend, advisor, or mentor, and reach out and help others as well — connectedness is an important stress reliever.
  5. Pursue lifelong learning about subjects that interest you as well as those that create stress or uncertainty in your life.

CONCLUSION

Regardless of the tactics you use to tame your elephant, recognize that he’ll require constant tending and care to keep him in check, especially during challenging times. And you must be attentive of fear in your company and in your personal life; as an executive, those lives are inextricably intertwined.

Let’s stop talking and take action in 2011. Let’s choose to proactively make the decisions, confront the challenges, and try new ideas. Let’s create differentiated strategies, execute ruthlessly, communicate value, and partner with others. Let’s get data and try experiments, build our expertise, take small steps toward our goals. Every day, let’s make it our mission to coax the rider and elephant into working in unison.

“The reward of a thing well done, is to have done it.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

What do you think? Please share your thoughts and experiences with us here!