How Your Deepest Fears Might Be Influencing Your Decision Making

Your success as a principal will hinge in large part on the luck of the draw, feeding you opportunity or scarcity that's out of your control. Aside from that—or more because of that—it's pretty important to think about where you do have control.

You need to be smart (enough), disciplined, and willing to wrestle with those tough decisions where the right choice isn't always as obvious as your critics might think.

You also need to be self-aware, specifically about the deepest fears that drive your decision-making.

I didn't even know this was a thing until I read Tyler Cohen's short comment on surfacing the implicit leverage in an organization, and then using that to understand how we make decisions. That was two years ago and I've been thinking about it ever since.

Let me cite some specific examples. I'll bet there's at least one in here that you'll identify with:

  • After two years of trying, you finally found someone who can take over the part of your job you've come to dislike (it would always have something to do with managing a certain group of employees or clients, or maybe even sales). While this person has the skills, they can be difficult to work with. You overlook it because you hate the idea of losing ground and getting dragged back into doing that stuff.
  • You have a physical reaction when you think about losing any client big enough to deal a body blow to your firm's steady progress, so you've ended up with 30 clients, none of which represent more than 5% of your revenue. This helps you sleep at night but your AMs aren't driven to find new opportunities and grow accounts as much as to not disappoint clients. That's the mantra they've absorbed from you.
  • You want to be liked and so when something comes up in private conversation with a small group, your first tendency is to agree, even if a small voice inside is saying, "Hey, that's not a charitable understanding of what's happening. Are you really sure, or are you making some unfair assumptions".

Whichever of these scenarios might be true of your firm, those deep fears are not going to change and it's not worth the effort to push against that immovable wall. Instead, understand yourself and try to find ways to counteract your tendencies.

My own biggest fear isn't financial ruin of any kind—it's irrelevance. So I define success as always learning and improving. If I go down still learning, I'll be able to live with it. If I go down because I quit learning and reaching, it will be (even) harder to live with myself.

So financial performance is secondary to me. If it happens, it happens, but that's not the goal. I want to be the best; I don't care about the biggest.

Your biggest fear might be working with a team that doesn't like each other or where there is a constant underlying tension. So if you are going to choose between a staff mix that pushes each other to be better versus accepts and works well within the status quo, you'll revert to that latter mean.

Maybe you have a very highly paid COO or Chief of Staff type. But that person isn't afraid of the tough decisions that put your stomach in knots, and so you put up with their lack of deference in your own relationship with him or her.

These realities aren't always right or wrong. They just are, and it's useful to understand your biggest fears and how they impact your decision making. The most successful leaders don't change who they are, first, but understand who they are and how that's impacting their behavior. This process of self-awareness is then used to calibrate their decision making.

  1. What are your deepest fears in running the firm?
  2. How do these show up in your decision-making, specifically?
  3. How can you recalibrate your approach to take these into account?

Yes, your firm is going to deliver financial rewards, but it can also shape you as a leader, and help you shape others as leaders. That involves understanding our deepest fears and how that impacts our decision making.

Understand what it means if you are afraid of chaos, irrelevance, tension, financial ruin, embarrassment, or anything else.

It's easy for us to look on the NBA's fear of antagonizing China and why that might be. Or why a politician steps back from making a tough call because of some overwhelmingly influential source. But you and I are making the same kind of decisions based on our own fears, and effective leaders understand their own fears and how that shows up in their decision making.

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