Denise Kohnke


The CEO Guide to Fear


“Fear is the mind killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me.” 

– Frank Herbert, Dune (From the training of leader Paul Artreides)


What might be the hardest part of being a leader? The expectation of fearlessness, as in the whole “fearless leader” facade. Crushing, isn’t it?

For an exercise in oversimplification, let’s divide the CEO universe into two types:

  • Overachievers, who have historically found success through high personal effort and control.
  • C-students, who may have relied on experience, relationships and overachieving senior staff. Leaders from Presidents to basketball coaches have expressed the idea that “the world is run by C-students.”

The sad truth? Both types of CEOs are shaking in their respective footwear right now. And well they should, because “we are all in this (muck) together” means that neither CEO-type can rely on what’s familiar to slog forward out of this moment in history. 

Invention can save us all, but fear is invention’s nemesis. Fear hits you in the survival gut when you’re white-knuckling through rapidly changing, uncontrollable circumstances (like now) and you’re paralyzed by the next minute. 

Data, everyone’s best friend from the last couple of decades, isn’t going to help CEOs justify decisions anymore. Data collection and trend charting is historical—and close to worthless. The data right now for a lot of sectors is either, “We’ve hit zero” or “We’re up 100K percent!” (in the case of mask manufacturing).

Neither will last, but nothing’s going back to what it was anytime soon. 

Overachievers tend to be wired based on fear of failure. Are you that kind of CEO? If so, COVID’s cognitive lesson may be to embrace invention by way of its mother, necessity. Focus on speed, even though speed is founded on imperfection when you’re just learning to run. RUN, but don’t be afraid to fall down or change course. Take a lesson from AI and learn from the mistakes you make. Get out of paralyzed mode. Embrace the irony that perfectionists are rarely perfect.  

C-student CEOs are also afraid. Fearless leaders who’ve relied on their ability to get ahead by “working the system” may be left with no systems to work. Their ability to tap relationships is made much more difficult by social distancing; in many ways, Zoom calls and online output has been the great equalizer when it comes to who-is-adding-value-and-who-is-not in the senior staff world. From a CEO’s perspective, it doesn’t exactly work if you got where you are by way of experience, and you have no experience specific to the impact of global pandemics on your sector.

How does either CEO lead when they, themselves, are afraid?

So many of the pre-COVID marketing books and academic discourses on change management seem so adorably irrelevant right now. Not that the ideas are bad, it’s just that the change management content from most traditional sources seems irresponsibly slow and doesn’t factor the variable of fear. Not irrational fear, but fear with good basis for existential terror. Like Mike Tyson famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” COVID-19 is our collective punch in the mouth.

Come out fighting. Fast. No matter what kind of CEO you are. Be transparent. Tell your senior staff you are TERRIFIED, you’re looking for their help to invent a new world, and you need their help NOW.

That whole “fearless leader” thing? It’s soooo pre-COVID. 


Denise Kohnke

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