Driving Out Fearful Leadership


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Some people said that “Here is the world, beautiful and terrible things will happen. Do not be afraid” and they will notice this admonition about the fear among us. Sometimes, fear alerts us to real danger. Other times, fear comes from the uncertainty and risk that accompanies new behavior and strategies. The call to not be afraid could awaken us to another possibility: many of us spend more time reacting in fear than we realize. Leadership research bears this out.

The ability to realize that we are leading in fear and change this paradigm can help us learn to lead in a more than ordinary way, cultivating presence, releasing the gifts of others in our charge and deepening our relationship to the entire system, not just the parts we know. Leaders today face unprecedented daily demands on their energy and resources which will drive them into stressful and fearful condition. While this happened, the face of fear that makes it difficult to acknowledge the reality.

A fortune 100 CEO, after a long silence, finally spoke: “All these years I thought my business knowledge and market expertise was my leadership. After seeing this awesome work you’ve done, I realize this wasn’t leadership at all.I need to release others to do the kind of work I’ve just experienced that enganging relationship closest to the customers in critical decision making intersections can challenge the role of leader in himself. That’s a leadership.”

Leadership is essentially an ongoing conversation. The most effective leaders make time to reflect on and improve the quality of this conversation rather than just think about the future and fear about the uncertain things that will happen next. Fear that goes unexamined will keep you in a stagnant conversation that spins and spins but goes nowhere. Real dialogue requires vulnerability and courage, but such are the things that can transform an organization.

The fortune 100 CEO above was willing to learn publicly and practice new behaviors. He led from his own development rather than allowing fear to limit his and the organization’s growth. Even though his fear is difficult for him to see and feel, he is wise enough to track its impact on others. That is enough of a doorway through which he can move toward a greater future.

Beautiful and terrible things happen in leadership landscape today. Consider this: the systems we live and work in are living organisms. They predate us. They were, in all likelihood, here before us. Perhaps they have chosen you and me explicitly for this time we now face. Let’s become authors of beautiful things as yet unseen yet  longed for. Let’s commit ourselves to finding ways to acknowledge and then minimize the terrible things we are each capable of.

The full version of the article is available in IIE Laboratory.