What war reporters taught me about business

Experience helps you to manage fear. Herd mentality doesn't.

by Katarina Skoberne
Last Updated: 01 Oct 2015

One of my first jobs was as an interpreter for war correspondents. This was not a vocation I chose for myself; it was pragmatic and coincidental. I spoke some languages and a very short war broke out in my country in the Former Yugoslavia (or, as the journalists would categorise it, a skirmish of 10 days).

The main reason I walked over to the press centre and offered my services was that I realised there was no way I could stay in the shelter we were led to - I was far too restless for that. The idea that something could go wrong never truly crossed my mind, let alone that I could get hurt doing it. I was just over 20 and felt invincible. I felt the excitement, but not the threat, and this was the extent of the fight or flight reaction I had.

My country was relatively fortunate, hence my stint was short, but even in those 10 days, seasoned war reporters taught me a few things about life on the front line, mostly about managing the fear that is an integral part of their job. Here’s what I learned:

1. Approaches to fear and courage in danger differ

Like I did at the time, many ignore fear, whether actively or passively, and assume any negative outcomes don’t apply to them. This is mainly true of beginners, the rest will have found themselves in situations that proved their vulnerability otherwise, after which they took a more balanced view.

2. Herd mentality breeds dangerous decisions

Fear of career setbacks leads to herd mentality and herd mentality leads to compromised reporting and decision-making. Many of the reporters would convene at the end of the day to compare notes and that process led to a streamlined and unified version of the events being reported, which sometimes corresponded to the truth and was less accurate at others.

Sometimes one of them believed enough in an exclusive report to leave the pack and report it independently, which was the kind of high risk and potentially high reward situation that many of them had entered journalism of this kind to experience. If the reporter was on the right side of risk, there were considerable benefits for her, for the media she reported for and ultimately the subjects of their reporting, as the more risky reports (when right) were closer to bringing the truth home.

3. Experience manages fear

The more experienced journalists had a confidence beyond arrogance. They had seen fear and success from both sides. What resulted was a more aware approach both to their own place in reporting as well as their subject’s.

They managed fear rather that ignored it, which led to a different experience, and that insight could lead to different reporting. Just the fact that they spent less time pushing fear away meant their vision widened and deepened. They saw more, and were capable of more sound analysis, than those in the grip of bravado and hubris.

4. You can’t (always) give into instinct

To do the job well some primal reactions needed to be suppressed, be they fight or flight. Sometimes persistence is required; sometimes it is healthier to abandon a ‘mission’. And most of the time, a war journalist had suppressed the primal instinct to flee a dangerous situation that was intrinsic to the job.

I’d figured then that after this experience I could be fearless in any job. What I didn’t realise at the time was that this set of lessons would apply to business as much as it did.

A. Many entrepreneurs and young executives start by ignoring fear, which usually manifests as arrogance. Experienced, confident ones acknowledge and manage it.

B. Good leaders don’t give in to career pragmatism. They decide how much risk they can take and understand that their and their company’s potential success hinges on their own responsibility.

C. When fear is managed and ignored, perspective changes and analysis is better - which leads to better decision-making.

D. Fight or flight has a purpose. But in situations that are subtler than primal ones, such as business or being an observer, knowing when to override these instincts - and being able to - is key.

These are lessons that any dangerous or fear-inducing situation could make use of, be it a conflict or bungee jumping. No issue of consequence has ever been solved by ignoring a key driver such as fear. But once that driver is managed, it opens the door to a different experience and improved decision-making.

Instinctively, we all feel the rules don’t apply to us: other than mildly depressive people, humans are wired to perceive situations and their place in them as more positive than statistics will allow. Most people assess the likelihood of a negative event happening to them as lower than the statistical probability (otherwise known as ‘Optimism Bias’ or ‘Positive Illusions’). There is most certainly an evolutionary reason for that, or less of us would be driven to embark on the high-risk ventures that drive the human race forward.

Automatically ignoring fear – at least in non-life threatening situations - plays a role in the greater evolutionary scheme. It ensures sufficient numbers of people jump in and take risks, when being too sensible might be detrimental to our overall survival. The number of people deciding to go forth after a realistic assessment and a recognition of fear and potential negative outcomes might be lower, but those who do will make better decisions that takes into account both possibilities.

Apologists for ignoring fear, on the other hand, will argue that the awareness of the possibility of failure distracts from single-minded determination. However, many of the most successful ventures have been started by people who have failed and were able to acknowledge the odds and still persist. It is often that very duality of mindset that made them great leaders – something I will look at in more detail in my next column.

Katarina Skoberne is a management consultant and former CEO of OpenAd, a global crowdsourcing venture she co-founded that ultimately failed.

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