There is a common misconception that leaders are fearless individuals. However, in reality, fear plays a significant role in leadership. Fear is a primal emotion that internal or external factors can trigger. While sometimes fear may be out of our control, there are also instances where it is just in our minds. Fear signals that there may be a real danger. When a threat is genuine, fear is also genuine, but when it is a product of our imagination, it is only a perceived fear.
Sometimes fear is a rational response when faced with a real and immediate threat. This can occur when someone is in a life-threatening situation, such as being in danger of being stabbed, dying, or losing a loved one. Other times, fear can be instinctual and primal, such as with phobias like claustrophobia (fear of confined spaces), arachnophobia (fear of spiders), and ophidiophobia (fear of snakes), among others.
Additionally, there are instances where fear is irrational and doesn’t make logical sense. In these cases, the individual may wonder why they are afraid since one part of their brain recognizes there is no danger, while another part keeps reacting. An example of this type of fear might be a fear of ghosts or clowns. Even though the person knows logically that there is no real danger to their life, they cannot control their feelings of fear.
These three types of fear can be classified into natural and conditional fear. Natural fears, such as fear of dangerous animals and specific places, are innate. Conditional fears arise from negative experiences and can lead to anxiety and avoidance. When we have a negative experience, our brain associates similar circumstances with the same outcome, resulting in irrational responses.
In today’s readings, we meet with two communities and their leaders facing some vital fears. In the Gospel of Matthew, with the beheading of John the Baptist in chapter 14, Jesus knew that his hour was drawing near. Starting from that moment, the tone of Matthew’s Gospel changed, as Jesus was facing threats sporadically. When the Pharisees are not testing, him, the Sadducees are questioning him. When the Apostles are not doubting, they manifest no strong notion of who they are.
And as a good leader, the greatest fear is not the one that comes from without, but the ones within. The former can be easily avoided, but the latter keeps following the fear-gripped individual. In today’s reading, Matthew 16.24-28, we read about the new way Jesus taught his disciples since he decided to go to Jerusalem. His days are numbered, and the disciples seem oblivious to the looming danger. So, there is no more question of mincing words if he must succeed in his mission of preparing them for the tasks ahead. Being a disciple of Jesus is no longer a question of admiring his miracles and witnessing his intriguing teachings, but intentionally following the new way.
Henceforth, it is either they follow him or they do not: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves, take their cross, and follow me. Those who want to save their lives will lose it, and those who lose their lives for my sake will find it. Those are words of a leader who is afraid of his disciples’ future, and a thing of fear for disciples who want to follow a leader with solid conviction.
In the first reading, Deuteronomy 4.32-40, we encounter another fear gripped leader. Moses, the author(s) of Deuteronomy, informs us has been notified will not enter into the promised land:
“The Lord was angry with me because of you, and he solemnly swore that I would not cross the Jordan and enter the good land the Lord your God is giving you as your inheritance. 22 I will die in this land; I will not cross the Jordan” (4: 21-22).
So, gripped with the fear of what will happen to his community, he must sound loud and clear. They cannot waste what was gotten with the blood of their ancestors. He also perceived the fear of his community and needed to reassure them of God’s steadfastness. Thus, he addressed the Israelites and asked them to reflect on the history of humanity. He urged them to inquire throughout the heavens and earth if there had ever been an event as remarkable as what they had experienced. He questioned if any nation had ever heard the voice of a god speaking from a fire and survived.
In brief, in today’s first and second reading, the word of God reminds us that being frightful is not always a weakness on the side of a leader. A community facing the fear of their future is not a weakness. However, they should never forget that in no history has any God been as faithful as the God that guides his people through fears and threats.