Fearful Leaders

September 29th, 2010

Leaders always live in fear.  I know it is not especially appealing to see leaders as fearful, but the more I work with senior leaders, the more I see how prevalent fear is in how they lead.  And I don’t just mean how some leaders instill fear in others; we are all too familiar with the story of the demanding executive who leads this way.  I’m talking about how leaders are affected by fear.

I suspect the meetings that President Obama has with his advisors regarding their refusal to provide what he considered a reasonable exit strategy from Afghanistan engender passion and debate between and among all present over high stakes decisions.  In these kinds of settings leaders far too frequently march down one of two paths:  they shut out their advisors or they cater to them.  In the case of the former, the story is often one of a leader demonstrating bold defiance; following one’s gut instinct.  It’s reminiscent of Frank Sinatra’s classic hit, doing it “my way.”  The leader appears bold and courageous and kind of cool.  The mirror story is one of the leader who relies too heavily on input from advisors.  This leader ultimately abdicates responsibility for decision-making to advisors and finds personal security in lack of accountability.  That leader comes off as weaker and much less cool.

Either of these paths could, by virtue of luck, produce a good decision.  And more important than the image that we carry about each path, is to understand that neither approach is sustainable.  The closed down leader quickly loses touch with critical information needed to make complex decisions.  The advice-needy leader is quickly overwhelmed by the amount of information offered up when trying to make those same decisions.

The key insight here if that both of these leader behaviors are often the result of the leader’s fear of the moment.  The leader reactively becomes defiant or passive because he or she, being human, is overtaken with uncertainty and falls back on familiar personal patterns of behavior because it is really hard to do much else in the moment.  The most important lesson leaders must hang onto in these situations are:

1.  Be willing to pause. Stop the flow of discussion, confusion, energy, and passion momentarily in the midst of these situations.  This is a way of    lessening the tension of the moment and turning moments of fear into moments of resolve.

2.  Really engage advisors. Virtually every leader must have a team of advisors to provide the information, provoke the dialogue, and offer support the leader needs to make high stakes decisions.  But engaging advisors means managing the kind of advice you receive and how you receive it.  I work with leaders, for example, who in the midst of tense diversity–related incidents, immediately ask their legal advisors what to do.  And then, deferring to the expert, they just do it.  That’s just wrong. Question advisors, push back on them, and encourage them to push back on you.  That is the kind of healthy engagement that produces clarity of communication and, most importantly, innovative ways of approaching the situation.

3.  THEN, Call the question. Leaders must, at the end of the process make key decisions and take full responsibility for those decisions.  And I don’t just mean in the trite, “buck-stops-here” posturing version of responsibility.  I mean the real responsibility that comes when the leader is fully knowledgeable about and committed to the path that he or she has co-created with advisors.

Following these steps produces the kinds of decisions that a leader can then drive through his or her constituencies.  The decisions have strategic value, tactical clarity, and the best wisdom available.  And the leader is positioned to lead from a place of integrity and confidence, fully supported by his or her inner circle.  And that beats leading from fear any day.

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