Guest Posting: Fear & Loathing in Executive Coaching

Note from Kaveh: This month, I invited my colleague, Mazher Ahmad, to contribute to my blog as a guest writer. Mazher’s passion is working with organizations to educate and develop their leaders. As a Principal at Philosophy IB, Mazher leads client engagements with Fortune 500 companies and non-profit organizations to design and implement strategic organizational change and leadership development solutions. He also acts as an executive advisor and coach to senior leaders across a variety of functions and industries.

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Fear & Loathing in Executive Coaching
by Mazher Ahmad

“Do not fear mistakes. You will know failure. Continue to reach out.” Benjamin Franklin

“Daddy, I don’t want to go to school today. My tummy hurts and I can’t concentrate in math class”, my 8 year old daughter cried, as my wife and I helped her get ready for school. To her credit, she mustered up the strength and made her daily trek to school that day.

Less than an hour later, I began an executive coaching session with one of my clients, a senior business leader of a Fortune 500 company, where I heard him utter almost the exact same words as my daughter: “I feel it in my stomach, and it comes out of nowhere and prevents me from being able to think straight. I’m not sure what it is, but it scares the heck out of me and it is impacting my performance on the job.”

As I reflected on the eerie similarities between an innocent 3rd grader’s articulation of dealing with the anxieties of math class and a seasoned Senior Vice President’s description of dealing with the realities of Corporate America, it became clear that one of the most common problems that we deal with throughout the course of our lives is simply…fear. So simple, so innocent, yet so debilitating.

The Necessary Evil

As part of my work as both an executive coach and a management consultant, I am often asked, “Isn’t fear a necessary evil? Don’t we need fear to keep us sharp, keep us motivated, keep us focused?” My response is always a resounding, “Absolutely!” Fear is a fundamental human emotion that allows us to stay clear of harm’s way, and as a result sharpens our ability to make lucid decisions. The issue, therefore, is not how we eradicate fear altogether, but rather how we manage it. Kafka captured it beautifully when he said, “My fear…is my substance and probably the best part of me.”
A few years ago, I coached a leader (let’s call him Ben*) to help him uncover why he was having such a hard time sustaining success in his job over time. Ben would start off strong and after about 12 months, he would begin to second guess himself, which often led him to intellectualize things and read more into his manager’s feedback. As a result, he berated himself for not knowing certain parts of his business, which in turn unleashed his inner monster leading him to lose more confidence and spiral into a downward trajectory.

The VOICE Model

After identifying the moment where fear started to creep into his mind, we began to employ the VOICE (Visualize, Optimize, Isolate, Calm, Embrace) model where he would engage in the following steps:

  1. Visualize the voices – During this first step, Ben went through a series of simple, reflective visualization techniques, where he entered a meditative state and saw his core being as separate from the distinct voices that were raging in his mind. As an example, he identified voices that ranged from being disapproving and angry, to those that were also confident and empowering. The ability to separate his core self identity from any one part or voice was critical for him to understand that he in fact possessed limitless potential and could control these self-limiting voices that had taken over his inner dialogue.
  2. Optimize the imagery – In the second phase of the process, once he had identified the number of voices that were active within himself, Ben optimized each one by giving it vivid physical descriptions, including the sound of the voice, the gender of the voice, and what the voice was actually saying to him to induce the fear he experienced. Ben found that this technique helped him further separate from these distinct “characters” and allowed him critical space to breathe.
  3. Isolate the critical voice(s) – Once the primary voice of fear was crystallized, Ben then named it. In this case he decided to call it “Big Ben” and with this new moniker, he was able to better identify when this voice would be triggered to its fullest. Once the voice had been given an identity, Ben was able to play out a mental exercise of bringing “Big Ben” to his fullest, ugliest, most intense form and experience the subsequent intensity. During this stage, I asked Ben how he felt physically when “Big Ben” was at its peak, and he described a distinct increase in tension in his neck and shoulders, butterflies in his stomach, and dryness in his mouth.
  4. Calm the critical voice(s) – In stage four, after Ben brought his inner critic to life, we began to work through a process of putting it in its proper place. By visually shrinking its physical size, and allowing another part of Ben (“Champion Ben”) to come forward, he was able to calm the noise, and gain more centered control of his experience. During this stage, when asked how his body now physically felt, Ben described that his neck and shoulder tension had subsided, his stomach butterflies had disappeared, and his mouth was back to normal (all of which occurred while remaining in the exact same physical environment he was during the earlier stage).
  5. Embrace the balance – As the exercise came to a close, Ben began to embrace the balance he had found by controlling his “Big Ben” voice, while allowing his more positive, supportive, “Champion Ben” voice to gain amplitude. Once he was in a state of inner calm and confidence, Ben reflected on his experience and shared that he was not only energized, but by being able to separate these parts from his core being, he discovered that he was actually more in control of his emotions and feelings (particularly the emotion of fear) than he had ever imagined or felt possible.

In short, this brief mental exercise gave him (and many other clients who have utilized this technique as well) the ability to begin to control their fears and increase their level of consciousness around what was happening for them in those moments of high stress. One does not need to be a neuro-scientist or psychotherapist (of which I am neither) to be able to employ these techniques in the services of clients. I for one, have gained more wisdom to wrestle with my own demons and hope to harness some of these insights as a parent, so that my daughter has more tools to help her during her journey of going from tears and tummy aches to discovering the magical mysteries of mastering math.

*Note: All names have been changed to protect client confidentiality.

  1. Kessler RC, Chiu WT, Demler O, Walters EE. Prevalence, severity, and comorbidity of twelve-month DSM-IV disorders in the National Comorbidity Survey Replication (NCS-R). Archives of General Psychiatry, 2005 Jun;62(6):617-27.
  2. Dweck Carol. Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. New York: Random House, 2006.

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One Response to Guest Posting: Fear & Loathing in Executive Coaching

  1. Amazing post. I am impressed to read this article and got interesting information from here. Glad to knowing the great information from here.. Thanks for sharing this article with us.. I want to be visiting here again and I hope you will provide to us more interesting information about executive coaching.

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