Fight, Flight or Freeze: What’s Your Executive Instinct?

In the wild world of business leadership, CEOs and executives face a primal dilemma — fight, flight or freeze. It’s a classic survival mechanism triggered in the face of threats or stressors.  

Historically, that meant coming across predators in the wild. Now, it’s more likely to be activated by threats to your business. 

As a leader, are you more likely to fight, take flight or freeze? 

While it may sound like something out of a nature documentary, this instinctual response still plays a crucial role in the decision-making process of modern-day leaders. None of these responses are inherently right or wrong; you just need to understand your natural response to danger to make the most of it. 

Fight: The Warrior CEO

For some CEOs, the instinct to “fight” is deeply ingrained, propelling them to confront challenges head-on with unwavering determination and resilience 

Picture a leader who charges into battle, sword drawn (metaphorically, of course). These are the warrior CEOs, the bold visionaries who thrive amidst adversity, viewing obstacles as opportunities for growth rather than impediments to success. In the face of market disruptions, economic downturns, internal challenges and fierce competition, these leaders harness their fighting spirit to drive innovation. 

But, like any epic hero, the warrior CEO must beware of their actions’ potential consequences. Their boldness can sometimes lead to reckless decisions and tunnel vision, potentially putting their organization at risk in their quest for dominance. 

Ignoring warning signs, disregarding caution and becoming overly aggressive can lead to strategic missteps, burnout among employees and organizational instability. 

Solutions for “fight” responses

To counteract an instinctual “fight” response, slow down. Consider long-term results, not just the here and now. Curate a team with varied opinions and views, and truly listen to their suggestions and concerns. Consider an external coach to act as an impartial sounding board. Focus on foresight and take a minute to breathe.  

Flight: The Strategic Retreat  

Then, there are the CEOs who prefer a strategic retreat over a head-on collision.  

These leaders value caution and prefer to sidestep obstacles rather than confront them directly. They’re the chess players of the business world, always thinking several moves ahead and adjusting their strategy accordingly to prioritize risk aversion and mitigate potential losses. 

Flight-oriented CEOs are adept at identifying when to step back, reassess and recalibrate their strategies in response to changing market dynamics or internal challenges. They value agility and adaptability, recognizing that sometimes discretion is the better part of valor in a volatile business landscape. 

While their risk-averse nature can be a valuable asset, flight-oriented CEOs must be wary of being trapped in a comfort zone that stifles innovation and growth.  

Solutions for “flight responses 

A general who always retreats will never win the war. Find small battles that carry a little more risk than feel comfortable and start there. Remember, insisting on continuing the way you’ve always done things puts you behind the curve of innovators and disruptors. Speak to trusted advisors and use your strategic strengths to find a path that minimizes risk while still offering rewards. 

Freeze: The Deer in the Headlights 

 Lastly, we have the CEOs who sometimes find themselves frozen in the face of adversity. Like a deer caught in headlights, they struggle to make decisions when the pressure is on.  

This isn’t due to a lack of knowledge, experience or skill but rather an overwhelming sense of uncertainty, responsibility or perfectionism that leaves them stuck in place, concerned about making the wrong choice. And to be clear, waiting to see what happens isn’t always the wrong choice, either! Sometimes a little more information is a game-changer. But waiting too long can lock you out of the best options, which leads to falling behind the competition.  

Freezers are prone to analysis paralysis, overthinking every scenario and hesitating to take action. This can be particularly detrimental in crises, where swift and decisive leadership is necessary to steer the organization through turbulent waters. It can also lead your employees to wonder if you’re actually paying attention to the state of the business. 

Solutions for “freeze” responses

To thaw out from this icy state, freeze-oriented CEOs need to learn to balance needing data with trusting their gut. If you get stuck on imagining the worst-case scenarios, flip the script. What’s the best outcome of the possible decisions? And what will happen instead if you don’t make a move? Remember: done is better than perfect. 

Finding balance 

Successful leadership requires CEOs to master the balance between these responses to adversity. It’s about knowing when to confront challenges with courage, when to step back and reassess, and when to exercise prudence without feeling imprisoned by indecision. 

So, to all the CEOs navigating the jungle of business leadership, remember to embrace your instincts, but don’t let them rule you. By striking the right balance between bravery, caution and adaptability, you’ll lead your organization to new heights while staying true to yourself. 

Looking for more insights about how to maximize your leadership abilities through your own psychology? Check out my podcast, The Frustrated CEO.  

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