Conquering Leadership Fears

October 29, 2020

Conquering Leadership Fears

There’s little questioning that fear, whether it’s an emotion we experience or a tactic we use, is generally bad for leadership. But not everything about fear is bad.

As a tactic, for instance, fear has a decent track record for achieving immediate results. Indeed, some of the world’s most well-known leaders, successful in most of the ways the world defines that word, have a reputation for leading with fear—Mark Pincus of Zynga, Mark Fields of Ford, Rupert Murdoch of News Corp. and Larry Ellison of Oracle, just to name a few. The tactic works because it plays on the powerful emotion of personal fears.

When fears aren’t checked by discipline and perspective, they lead to counterproductive thoughts, words and actions. This can result in passive aggressive leaders who are overly controlling, intimidating and manipulative.

When those behaviors become a pattern, building trust becomes impossible. And that’s why irrational fears—those that don’t protect or inspire us—can land us in a world of trouble. When we allow those emotion-based fears to live inside of us and rule over us, we put ourselves in a difficult position.

Those types of thoughts can lead to common fear-based behaviors that are disastrous to us and to an organization’s culture, behaviors such as:

  • Lying to portray beneficial outcomes.
  • Hoarding information and maintaining silos inside teams (or between teams) to protect decision-making power.
  • Putting up shields or altering the facts to enhance a carefully constructed perception.
  • Communicating with others only to serve selfish interests rather than to serve the greater good.
  • Staying silent when coworkers gossip about others, tell insensitive jokes, or make derogatory statements.

These types of actions can breed breaches of integrity and a lack of respect for the jobs that others do. And that creates a cancerous situation that can quickly pollute an organization, especially when those behaviors are evident in leaders.

Why? Because people watch leaders. They study their behaviors. They make note of what their leaders reward, punish, or ignore. They figure out what it takes to succeed in their environment. Then, in most cases, they consciously or unconsciously alter their behaviors in ways that mirror their leaders in order to fit in and advance.

Naming Our Leadership Fears

We all have fears and insecurities. We can’t avoid them. But if we search our hearts, we can acknowledge them, name them, and deal with them.

These fears take many forms. A 2014 survey by Roger Jones of Vantage Hill Partners in London surveyed 116 executives and conducted follow-up interviews with 27 of them, Jones put the biggest fears of leaders into five buckets:

  1. incompetence
  2. underachieving
  3. appearing too vulnerable
  4. being attacked politically by colleagues
  5. looking foolish

Interestingly, all of those fears are about the leaders themselves and how they are perceived, and none are about their organization and how it is performing.

The biggest fear among leaders, according to the research by Jones, is being found to be incompetent—when our insecurities tell us that our reputation as an expert is a farce and that eventually it will somehow be revealed to the world. Externally, we want to project self-confidence. Internally, we know our weaknesses. We see the gap, and we start to worry that others will see it too. The resulting fear is often called impostor syndrome, and Jones points out that it, “diminishes (a leader’s) confidence and undermines relationships with other executives.” 

The Fallout of Fears

Fears can paralyze leaders or drive them to do all sorts of things they know to be wrong—acting dishonestly or tolerating poor behaviors in others when it leads to desired results. In fact, the executives Jones interviewed mentioned more than 500 negative consequences that resulted from their fear-based dysfunctional behaviors. Those mentioned most frequently include: 

  • allowing bad behavior at the next level down,
  • failing to act unless there’s a crisis,
  • taking bad risks,
  • being mistrustful and overcautious in relationships with co-workers and
  • failing to speak up or have honest conversations.

For instance, the fear of underachieving can cause leaders to ignore what I call cultural vipers—those employees whose performance shines but whose cultural fit is askew. They poison the culture with ego but often go unchallenged because a leader fears the potential failure that would follow if the organization lost the immediate performance results the viper delivers. When the fear of being seen as incompetent gains momentum, it can snowball to create what Dutch psychologist Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries calls, “neurotic impostors.”

“In extreme cases,” de Vries writes, “neurotic impostors bring about the very failure that they fear. This self-destructive behavior can take many forms, including procrastination, abrasiveness, and the inability to delegate.” And while the work ethic of these leaders can be contagious, they can also become impatient, harsh and unrealistic in their expectations, which de Vries says, “inevitably translates into high employee turnover rates, absenteeism and other complications that can affect the bottom line.”

The fear of being attacked politically by colleagues can make leaders distrustful and, in the extremes, paranoid about what others are thinking, saying or doing behind their backs. These leaders are likely to isolate rather than collaborate or delegate.

Rather than risk a forced mea culpa from inadvertently saying the wrong thing, many leaders prefer silence. That might be the wise choice in many situations, but silence driven by fear comes with its own set of consequences. Rather than engaging in enlightening conversations, they might take the more comfortable route of spending time mainly in social cliques with people who affirm their views rather than challenging them. Their fear of looking foolish or of coming across as vulnerable, therefore, prevents them from forging relationships that add value to their lives and insights to their business.

In many cases, of course, our fears are unfounded. And, more often than not, leaders who are over-compensating based on their fears end up doing more harm than good, while leaders who overcome their fears earn trust and see better results. Ian Siegel, co-founder of ZipRecruiter, discovered this truth when he was a 23-year-old manager of a team of veteran engineers at Citysearch, an online guide to cities.

“Four failed CTOs had come before me, and the team was considered difficult and volatile,” Siegel said. “I knew they all were smarter than I was, so I told them, ‘Just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.’”

In other words, he didn’t worry about looking foolish, he didn’t worry about looking incompetent, he didn’t worry about being vulnerable, he didn’t worry about getting credit for the team’s achievements and he didn’t worry about office politics. And guess what happened? He earned the respect of a team that previously held its managers in contempt.

A joint study by researchers from Harvard Business School and Wharton School of Business found that someone who seeks advice and input is generally seen as more competent than someone who doesn’t. The act of seeking advice requires a sense of intellectual humility that actually can convey wisdom and confidence while providing ego biscuits to the person you are asking to provide help.

“Everyone in the room started immediately telling me that I was the best manager at the company,” Siegel said. “The only reason they thought that was because I was the best listener the team had ever had. It sounds so simple, but listening to people is highly effective, especially when you’re managing people who are smarter than you.”

Facing the Enemy

Fear affects everything we do. Regardless of which fears you struggle with most or how you label them, I’ve found the key action item in today’s work environments is to look honestly at your fears and admit that they exist. You can’t deal with reality until you acknowledge your reality.

Published by permission of Post Hill Press from Transfluence: How to Lead with Transformative Influence in Today's Climates of Change by Walt Rakowich. © 2020 by Walter C. Rakowich.

The Authors: 

Walt Rakowich is the former CEO of Prologis and author of Transfluence: How to Lead with Transformative Influence in Today’s Climates of Change