Fear and the Exceptional Leader

Leaders’ assumptions, values, beliefs, and mental models are critically important in shaping their day-to-day choices, choices that mold workplace culture and impact organizational functioning.

But an equally important driver of behavior – and one that is far more frequently overlooked and avoided — is fear.

Fear is a delicate issue in the workplace, particularly among leaders. Because of the visibility of their position, many leaders are reluctant to admit anxiety or insecurity, lest they be perceived as being weak or incapable. (Note how we can even be afraid of looking afraid.)

Such concerns might seem natural and understandable. After all, how many of us have not tried to project an air of confidence we didn’t really feel?

But of course no human being is entirely free from fear. The notion is not ony preposterous but patently nonsensical.  Moreover, hiding from or denying the fears we honestly feel can blind our perception, limit our choices, and distort our leadership potentially damaging ways.

We once asked a group of leaders what was preventing them from involving their subordinates more fully in decisions affecting their work. For a variety of reasons the group was able respond with an unusual degree of authenticity. The below-the-line dynamics they identified were as illuminating as they are honest:

  • Fear of surrendering authority and control
  • Fear of losing importance
  • Fear of being upstaged or outperformed by employees
  • Fear of appearing unknowledgeable or incompetent
  • Lack of trust in employees and coworkers
  • Fear of exposing inconsistencies or deficiencies in personal thinking or decision making
  • Lack of a positive relationship with those who would be involved
  • Preferring to seek input from those who already agree with our thinking

If these seem unusually personal, the participants themselves were surprised at how many obstacles to seemingly technical/tactical issue of involvement were grounded in their own fears and insecurities.

For leaders of that organization, employees were being excluded from decision-making processes not because of concerns about time or organizational boundaries or other logistical challenges. They were being excluded because of fear.

Owning up to this reality required a stout commitment to reflecting deeply on the motivation underlying personal leadership choices and honestly assessing the effects, both positive and negative, of those choices.

In that regard, this group’s willingness to acknowledge personal challenges, shortcomings, and areas for growth provides an example we would all do well to emulate.

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