Being Brave and Afraid: A Fighter Pilot’s Perspective on Fear and Courage
“Courage and fear are not mutually exclusive. Most of us feel brave and afraid at the exact same time.” – Brené Brown
How often have you felt both excited and nervous about a challenge or new experience you were facing?
As I look back on my career, I recognize that there were many times where I felt fear, and I had to work up the courage to face my fears. Whether it was starting basic cadet training at the Air Force Academy, or walking into my fighter squadron on day one knowing I was going to be the only female pilot, or taking off in my A-10 to fly a risky close air support mission to support our troops on the ground, or leading more than 1,000 military and civilian personnel in deployed locations around the world . . . in each of those situations, I felt a sense of fear. I wanted to do well, to prove myself, and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.
Fear, stress, and worry are normal reactions to change, uncertainty, or a crisis. We’ve likely all had stressful moments where our heart starts pounding and our breathing accelerates. We might even start sweating and notice that our muscles feel tense. That’s fear; that’s stress. But these feelings are also a survival mechanism. They help us react when we are faced with stress. Our body’s response to stress can help us face fear and act in adverse and unexpected situations. The goal is not to eliminate fear. Instead, it is key to acknowledge fear, anxiety, and stress and face it directly. We can find ways to harness the stress and adrenaline rush to improve our situation. Learn how to use it. Learn how to harness fear to your advantage.
The anxiety I felt about going to basic training and the fear of failing ensured that I worked hard to prepare before I arrived. I ran the hills in my neighborhood in combat boots. I did pull-ups every time I went in or out of my bathroom at home to improve my upper body strength. I put in the work to be ready. I learned how to harness my fear. The more I prepared, the more confident I became.
Feeling worried about walking into my very first fighter squadron knowing I would be the only female pilot and afraid of not meeting expectations meant that I worked hard to be credible. I used a pilot-preparation technique called chair flying every night before I flew a mission. By visualizing the mission before it occurred, I could prime myself for action, effectively cope with stress, and create a positive outcome. I studied, I worked hard, and I maintained a good attitude. As I practiced, I became increasingly competent, which also increased my confidence.
I used these same techniques before flying risky and intense close air support missions to support our troops on the ground. There was always some sense of nervousness because you didn’t want to fail to perform and let the ground troops down. So, I prepared as much as I could, briefed possible contingencies, and then went out to execute with confidence because of my training and preparation.
And this didn’t just apply to flying . . . . As a leader, I occasionally felt nervous or anxious about giving negative feedback, having difficult conversations, or making a tough decision that I knew might be unpopular with the team. It was tough, but I realized that leading with courage meant that I would also have to do the hard things. Feeling that fear, worry, or nervousness helped me to connect with the people on my team. It made me more empathetic with what my teammates were feeling. I made sure I had all the required background information. I rehearsed meetings and difficult conversations. And I thought about how people would feel (or act) in response to my actions. The fear, nerves, and worry actually made me a better leader because I was better prepared to face the unknown.
So, how can you be both brave and afraid at the same time?
- Acknowledge: Acknowledge the way you feel. Nervous about speaking up in a meeting or feeling worried about having a difficult conversation? Acknowledge it. It’s normal.
- Reflect: Take some time to think through the situation. What’s bothering you? Why are you feeling the way you do?
- Prepare: Rehearse, practice, or visualize by yourself or with a teammate to gain competence and confidence.
- Execute: If you want to lead with courage, then learn to take action in the face of fear. It’s all about what you do in those moments that matters the most.
- Learn: Will it always go perfectly? No. So take the time to learn from each experience. And do it better the next time.
Facing our fears isn’t supposed to be easy. It can be a struggle. It can be hard. But in the end, we will be stronger for it. When we learn to overcome our fears, we open ourselves up to greater possibilities and we can seize opportunities. We gain skills, experience, and confidence. Being brave in the face of fear is a powerful tool on our personal development journey.
This guest post was authored by Kim “KC” Campbell
Kim “KC” Campbell is a retired Air Force Colonel who served in the Air Force for over 24 years as a fighter pilot and senior military leader. Her final assignment was as the Director of the Center for Character and Leadership Development at the United States Air Force Academy.
As a senior military leader, Kim led thousands of airmen both at home and abroad in deployed locations and enabled them to succeed in their missions. She has experience leading complex organizations and driving cultural change. Kim has flown 1,800 hours in the A-10 Warthog, including more than 100 combat missions protecting troops on the ground in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In 2003, Kim was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for Heroism after successfully recovering her battle-damaged airplane after an intense close air support mission in Baghdad.
Since retiring from the Air Force, Kim has shared her inspirational story and lessons on leading with courage with business and corporate audiences as an executive coach and keynote speaker. She is the also the author of Flying in the Face of Fear: A Fighter Pilot’s Lessons on Leading with Courage.
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