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A-HA! The fear of leadership: Why I wasn’t ready to “take on me” as a leader


Stefano Di Lollo
Stefano Di Lollo, Chief Creative Officer, Papillon MDC

Creativity may have always come easily to me, but I’ve also always known that it couldn’t be left to chance. It’s a skill that must continually be developed and refined despite the effort, pain, and struggle that comes along with exploring the edges of one’s creativity.  Fortunately, my multifaceted career provided me with a thick coat laced with grit to help weather the uncertainty, ambiguity, and fear when chasing meaningful goals. Leadership, on the other hand, did not come so easily to me, and I had to learn (the hard way) that it couldn’t be left to chance either. Impromptu corporate decisions are often seniority-based and sometimes merit-based, but in either case, leaders aren’t necessarily selected because of apparent indicators of leadership potential. To make matters worse, promoted employees are often left without the appropriate guidance or training during the role transition.

Several years ago, I found myself looking in a mirror and asking “what now” when I was unexpectedly promoted from a frontline position as an industrial designer to a new leadership role. Certainly I felt a sense of accomplishment, but there was one problem. When I looked in the mirror, the reflection of someone paralyzed with fear stared back at me rather than the fearless leader I’d envisioned should be standing there. I wasn’t ready to “take on me” as a leader. Instead of being enthused by my new opportunity to lead a team of talented creatives, I was paralyzed by the fear of leadership itself.

“When I looked in the mirror, the reflection of someone paralyzed with fear stared back at me rather than the fearless leader I’d envisioned should be standing there.”

These are the 5 variants of fear that I encountered as creative leader:

  1. The Fear of Rejection
  2. The Fear of Taking Charge
  3. The Fear of Anonymity
  4. The Fear of Accountability
  5. The Fear of Losing Control

1. The Fear of Rejection


In my specific case, I was promoted without an official announcement shared to the company, which left my peers wondering why they were suddenly reporting to me. I wasn’t sure whether the team would accept me as their leader or whether they would remain bitter because they felt upstaged (regardless of whether I’d actually earned the role). My leadership journey quite literally began with the fear of rejection right out of the gate, and I allowed my perception of what I thought my team’s perception of me was, affect my ability to take ownership of the role. At the time, my instinct led me to avoid ruffling feathers by remaining neutral and nonchalant about the change. The problem? A mind tainted with internalized feelings of being an imposter or a fraud will certainly act as a major stumbling block for any leader. It opens a Pandora’s box for self-criticism, judgement, and doubt. Self-judgment causes people to either spend their time trying to prove that they’re worthy or pretending like nothing’s changed.

TIP: You must accept yourself as a leader first and foremost. If you’re worried about what your team is thinking, you’re not focused on the big picture responsibilities as a leader.  If your organization slips up, it’s still YOUR responsibility as a leader to communicate with your team and address any issue with integrity, honesty, transparency, and vulnerability (a.k.a. courage).

2. The Fear of Taking Charge


The fear of taking charge doesn’t quite mean that you’re afraid to recognize your new position relative to those around you so that you may better serve them, but rather it’s the fear or resistance in assuming control and responsibility of the leadership role itself. Keep in mind that it’s not the position or title alone that will lead to the organic development of leadership over time. A bias toward action is required beyond simply establishing your vision as the new leader, and you’ll have to act and communicate in ways that will produce the desired outcomes in people so that they can grow and achieve their goals relative to that vision. It’s so easy to forget that true leadership is about leaders creating leaders.

3. The Fear of Anonymity


When you’ve grown accustomed to receiving praise for your work (especially creative work), it’s not always easy to suddenly step out of the spotlight and allow it to shine onto the other members of your team. Letting go of the work that led you to your new role can feel like you’re disappearing into the background while others get to claim the credit for great projects that you may still have a desire to be a part of.

Tip: You need to recognize that ultimately your team’s success is now your success, and though it certainly may feel like you’re giving up the spotlight, in order to lead one must see the bigger picture objectives that will also bring new levels of challenge and praise. You’re not stepping out of the spotlight, you’re simply expanding it so that can include others. In other words, you aren’t giving anything up, you’re opening up the door for more. It’s also crucial to remember that you don’t need to completely disconnect yourself from all of your team’s projects, you can still be involved, and offer mentorship and coaching.


4. The Fear of Accountability


Before your new leadership role, you likely only had your own performance to worry about and now suddenly, there’s an added weight on your shoulders because you find yourself dealing with other peoples’ egos and shortcomings while still having to manage the other stakeholders in the business. Being accountable for the performance of others comes with the leadership territory, but if you focus on that pressure, it will cripple your ability to serve your team as the leader that they need you to be.

Tip: Remind yourself that you are allowed to grow into your leadership role which means you’re allowed to make mistakes, you’re allowed to turn to your mentors or coach for guidance, and ultimately you are not alone in this.


5. The Fear of Losing Control


It’s somewhat natural to feel the need to make sure you have a watchful eye over your team to protect yourself from unexpected surprises. It’s important, however, to remember that your job isn’t supposed to be that of a supervisor but rather the role of someone who empowers people to take control of their own respective work, achieve the desired outcomes, and grow into people who can reach their full potential. Your team needs to feel that you genuinely have faith in them and that you believe in their ability to grow into their own leadership roles.


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