Put Fear In Its Place - Lessons From a Former Airline Executive

October 22nd, 2015

Scott Dickson is the former CEO and president of Vanguard airlines, a position he took in early 2001 with full understanding that it was a turnaround situation. The airline was in trouble, and it was his job to reverse a bad situation. Then 9/11 changed everything.

In his book, Never Give Up: 7 Principles for Leading in Tough Times, Scott shares lessons he learned and biblical principles he implemented at Vanguard and other airlines where he served. Here's an excerpt from the book.  


On Saturday, March 4,1933, during his first inaugural address, United States president-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt told a frightened and discouraged nation, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Fear: What It Looks Like

There are many different kinds of fear, and some of them are healthy and beneficial to us. For example, we need to have a certain measure of fear when we cross a busy street on foot. In other words, we need to have a fear of being hit by a car so that we can take the appropriate steps to make sure that doesn’t happen.

However, destructive fear inhibits us from being what God intends for us to be in all areas of our lives, including business. This is the kind of fear that paralyzes us when it’s time to make a difficult decision, the kind of fear that gives us unneeded stress and anxiety, the kind that keeps us from moving forward and doing bigger and better things.

It truly amazes me when I meet business leaders who actually seem to look for reasons to be afraid of moving forward. They’re afraid of change, afraid of risk, and afraid of fear itself. That kind of fear can be crippling to a leader, and it can be death to his or her company or corporation, especially in difficult times. That’s because it is virtually impossible to avoid “fearful” situations, especially in today’s business climate, where mergers, acquisitions, failures, and restructurings have become the norm.

Fear greatly limits us, both in our personal lives and in our corporate lives. Fear keeps the stress levels higher than they need to be and detracts from the sound thinking and strong corporate leadership it takes to get a company through the hard times.

I believe this kind of fear is at least partially to blame for the kind of climate that has given rise to the WorldComs and Enrons—scandals that rocked our early twenty-first-century business and financial worlds, costing investors and taxpayers many billions of dollars—of the business world.

Fear may not always cause business leaders to engage in immoral or illegal practices, but it will almost always cause people to make bad decisions or, worse yet, to make no decision at all. Fear keeps the business leader from making tough decisions or taking risks—both of which, as any successful leader knows, are keys to success in the business world.

These steps have proven themselves helpful to me as I’ve fought my battles with fear, and I know they can be helpful to you, too.

Steps to Victory Over Fear

Step 1: Take hold of the fact that God doesn’t want you living in fear.

The first step in overcoming fear is realizing that God does not want any of us to live in gripping, paralyzing fear. That’s because He knows well that fear limits us and limits what He can do with us as leaders. God has never promised us as leaders a life free from difficulty. But He tells us very explicitly in His written Word that we are not to allow fear to rule our lives.

“Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them.”  Joshua 1:1-6

Step 2: Be honest with yourself—and with God—about your fears.

Think back on your life as a leader, and ask yourself how many times fear has limited your effectiveness or kept you from meeting your potential in your personal and business life. Are you afraid of people? Afraid of change? Afraid of risk? Afraid of consequences? Afraid of dealing with the inevitable “downturns” in your business?

When it comes to facing fear—and there is no doubt that sooner or later we will all have to face our share—honesty is by far the best policy. When we acknowledge to ourselves that we are afraid and when we confess our fears to God, we open the way for Him to calm our hearts by reminding us of one simple fact: He’s there for us through everything.

Step 3: Say “no!” to fear.  

In the Bible, God consistently tells his people one thing when it comes to being afraid: “Stop it!” Three times in the first chapter of Joshua alone, God commanded Joshua not to fear but to be strong and courageous so that Israel might go in and take possession of the Promised Land. Jesus also reminded His followers to “take heart” because He had overcome the world (John 16:33). And the apostle Paul summed up what should be our approach to fear when he wrote, “For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7 NKJV).

Saying “yes” to fear is telling God that you cannot trust Him to deal with a situation or a problem. On the other hand, saying “no” to fear is telling Him that you trust Him and that you’re willing to step out, take some risks, and try to accomplish great things so that you can glorify Him.

Step 4: Take your best shot.

Wayne Gretzky, arguably the greatest player in the history of the National Hockey League, once said, “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.”

Gretzky’s brilliant hockey career is an illustration of what we can do when we refuse to give in to fear, when we look at all obstacles in front of us but are still willing in spite of our fears to “take our best shot.”

Over the course of my career, I’ve been in several situations in which I needed to take my best shot if I was going to succeed. One of the most memorable examples of that was in early 2001, when I began working for Vanguard Airlines.

When I accepted the position as CEO and president of Vanguard, it was with the full understanding that this was a “turnaround” situation, meaning that the airline was asking me to reverse a bad situation. For most of its existence, Vanguard had suffered financially, due mostly to the fact that it lacked a focused business plan and because the airline flew old planes across a confused and ever-changing route structure. Change was needed, and, fortunately, our current majority shareholders were committed to making it.

The turnaround process at Vanguard had begun in early 2001, just before I joined. Upon my arrival, we intensified the effort. We adopted an entirely new—and much better—route structure, leased newer planes with lots of legroom in coach, and initiated a new computer reservation system. We also invested in affordable business-class products and more advanced airline revenue management techniques. Finally, we committed to running on schedule and instilling a positive “can do” attitude in the beleaguered airline staff.

We made considerable progress in the first months of 2001, and Vanguard even began to show small profits the following summer. Finally—in its sixth year of existence—the Vanguard team began to see that the airline could operate successfully.

While the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and their aftermath thwarted what I believe would have been long-term success at Vanguard, I still see our successes earlier that year as an example of what can happen when leaders take their best shot, even in the face of difficult times.

If you want to overcome fear, you first need to remember that you are not called to a life of fear. Then you need to be honest with yourself and with God about your fears. After that, you can say no to fear and take your best shot.

©​ 2004 Excerpt adapted from Never Give Up, by Scott Dickson. Printed here with permission from Scott Dickson. 

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