Skip to content

Leadership Q&A: Fear and The Great Unknowns of Change

Fear of the Dark“I find that doing more with less is only part of the morale problem, fear appears to be having a much bigger impact right now–do you have advice on helping people through that kind of stress?”

Fear is a combination of many things.

One is the recognition of a threatening situation. For many people their fear is justified because their jobs are in jeopardy.

Fear is also the recognition that the future is unknown. Our experience of change is disruptive and disorienting, and leads us to believe that the future is beyond our understanding. This kind of fear robs us of hope.

Third, fear can be an expression of a lack of trust in those who are in authority. We don’t trust that they have our best interests clearly in mind, or, that our situation actually matters to them. We feel that our welfare is in their hands, and that scares us.

Fourth, there is the fear of retribution if we speak honestly or challenge the decisions of those in authority.

Lastly, our fear is often a lack of confidence that we can deal with the challenges that face us in the midst of change.

Fear is a natural reaction to an unstable situation. So, what do we do.

We start by changing our perception of the situation we are in. In this case, we realize that the kind of change we are experiencing is not temporary or an aberration, but the way the future is going to be. I’ve seen this coming for a long time. It does make sense to me. It doesn’t make it any easier to address. Simple resignation to its reality is not the answer. Instead, we must retool our perceptions about the context of the time we are living in.

At the beginning of the decade, I became intrigued by the Lewis & Clark Expedition. For non-American readers, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were charged by President Thomas Jefferson to lead an expedition into the newly acquired United States territory west of the Mississippi River. The expedition was a cultural, economic and scientific endeavor focused on finding a trade route by water that would connect the Pacific with the Eastern states of the US. The expedition traveled from 1804 to 1806 through country that no descendant of European ancestry had ever been. There were no maps. No journals of previous expeditions. Every day they got up knowing that what was in front of them was unknown. The physical hardships were brutal. What was it that carried them through to an end?

As I read the story with increasing interest, I came to realize that many of the principles and practices of the expedition fit into a contemporary setting of disruptive, disorienting change. I came to the conclusion that the Lewis & Clark Expedition was the first 21st century leadership team. As I sought to frame my understanding of their story for our time, I identified a set of question that I call The Great Unknowns. For each one there is a discipline that the expedition practiced every day. They are instructive for how we can deal with change.

The Great Unknowns Expedition Disciplines
Where am I going?

What will I achieve?

Capture a Vision of Achievement.
What do I need?

Am I ready?

Build on Strengths.

Acquire New Skills and Knowledge.

Who will go with me?

Can I find partners?

Develop People.

Be Trustworthy.

Can I make it through?

What is the right thing to do?

Practice Resourceful Optimism.

Set higher standards for performance.

The Great Unknowns are still with us. We need to answer them today just as every explorer and expedition leader in history has had to do.  We ask the questions, not once, but repeatedly as a way to focus on how we adapt to the changes that are happening to us and our organizations.

Fear is a product of not knowing where we are and what to do. We feel paralyzed and isolated in our fear.  When as leaders we don’t know where to turn, then we must change how we approach the unknown. One Lewis & Clark story to illustrates what is possible if we follow these disciplines.cover-image-Marias

In June of 1805, the expedition had been traveling up the Missouri River since its beginning. Some native tribes people in North Dakota had told them of a fork in the river, and that the Missouri proceeded West. When they arrived at the confluence of two rivers (Pictured here, with the Missouri River to the right and the Marias River to the left.) one went North and the other West. The one that went North looked that the river that they had been traveling up. Lewis & Clark decided not make the decision on their own of which river to take. Instead, they involved the whole expedition. They divided up the Corps of Discovery, and sent a party up each river to return with their findings. The remarkable step they took as an example of 21st century leadership was to have the whole expedition vote for which river they should follow. It is remarkable because here was a US military unit that first acted democratically, instead of hierarchically and secondly, did that which was not possible in the settled parts of the United States. Included in the voting was their native guide, Saccajewa and William Clark’s slave, York.

These expedition disciplines are collaborative, not individualistic. We capture a vision together. We depend upon one another to build strengths and acquire new skills and knowledge. We care for one another so that fear and disorientation are minimized. We practice trustworthiness together. We encourage one another to keep going, to practice resourceful optimism. And we hold ourselves to high standards of performance that will get us through.

Fear, and low morale, as I wrote about last week, are symptoms of the changing world that we are living in. If we take the attitude that what is before us is unknown, then we open ourselves to the possibility of discovery as a way to proceed. There is no escaping the hard challenges that confront us. What we can do is find hope in our own change of perception to discover the opportunities that may lie around the next bend in the river of life.

Photo credit:

About the author

Dr. Ed Brenegar I'm a leadership speaker, writer and consultant who is a mentor and catalyst for change. I assist leaders and their teams in the transitions required to succeed in today's complex organizational environment. I live in Western North Carolina. I'm involved the Boy Scouts, a charitable leadership training group called Lessons In Leadership, an ordained Presbyterian Church USA minister, and am the host of the Say Thanks Every Day social network.

Be Sociable, Share!

Posted in General Leadership, Leadership Q + A.

Tagged with , , , , , , , , , .