The latest insights on narrative, storytelling and leadership in higher education.

Fear: unremitting horror or catalyst for change?


We know about the good stuff in leadership – being empathetic, listening attentively, considered feedback – but what about fear?

Can something so…horrifying…lead to something positive?

Coming soon… to the university where you work…



It’s already there in how we talk.

Fear of the Unknown.

Dread of what might come out of the woodwork.

Fear of being blamed, bullied or otherwise humiliated.

Horror in the Corridor no living soul dares to walk.

Fear of the consequences of taking a risk, and getting it wrong.

Fear of being found out: The Imposter strikes again.           

It’s in the zeitgeist. Everyone working and studying in universities is aware today of anxiety and other aspects of mental health as influencers on our wellbeing.

In a paralysis caused by fear, we’re at risk of being held back from doing anything worth taking a chance on.”

In my conversations with colleagues in universities recently, I’ve also been all too aware of the caution that’s around. Is this idea we have for a learning activity that will challenge colleagues going to be too much? Is it going to be the proverbial back-breaking straw? At a time when we’re all wound up, overburdened and stressed.

As a result, decisions are not being taken. In a paralysis caused by fear, we’re at risk of being held back from doing anything worth taking a chance on. What’s worse, this kind of fear can be contagious.

Change the Story

Many of the fears that can seem all too real have a flipside. Seen and tackled differently, they can be turned into opportunities.

We recognise the power of stories to make connections and open up understanding. A story that paints a picture of devastating consequences can galvanise people to determined action. There’s no more pressing case of this than in our response in early 2020 to the climate emergency.

In a memorable address to senior colleagues at the University of Central Lancashire in the late 1990s, incoming Vice-Chancellor Malcom McVicar shared with colleagues his metaphor for the university as a train going on an exciting journey into a tunnel. When it emerged from the tunnel, it would be shiny and renewed.

Then, gazing across the audience with a steely glare, he said ‘There are no passengers on the train.’

After the shiver had run its course along my vertebrae, I resolved from that day on to sharpen my words and deeds, in public and in private. I was determined to be part of that train, and not as a passenger.

As long as we feel we are not alone we can look fear in the eye and see it off.”

As long as we feel we are not alone we can look fear in the eye and see it off.  Leaders have the prerogative to tell compelling stories of success that confront the fear and summon forth the healing powers that lie in our humanity.

Let us use these stories wisely. Now of all times.

At a university near you.

By Paul Gentle

Paul is the Academic Director at Invisible Grail. A leadership expert, Paul has dedicated the last ten years to creating and delivering leadership development programmes in Higher Education.

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