Leadership is about building fearless hearts and minds.
There have been a series of unhappy ends for business leaders whose instinct or habit is to rule with a degree of fear. Shredding the ideas and presentations of your team, disrespecting women and minorities, treating anyone harshly, creating an aura of power or superiority around you so that only the fearless approach you are all examples of low-esteem leadership. We see giants fall monthly; some tumble in very public ways.
Everyone needs nurture, support, challenge, respect, opportunity as well as the confidence and esteem to take action. And everyone knows this. While ruling a team with fear can get some results, sometimes, from the timid, leaders will never tap into the sheer level of potential that exists with the workforce.
The first consequence of leading with fear is that people close down, to keep themselves safe. One particular company has a culture of pushing people to hit quarterly targets at all costs. The senior leadership team has been trying to encourage its leaders to develop a fearless mindset. At the same time, they create systems and processes designed to perpetuate a tangible fear of missing targets. Innovation, collaboration, co-operation and breakthrough deals become harder and harder to get. The global top-team consistently fail to summon the courage required to change things significantly. They know what needs changing. They have the money and expertise to change. They have the will to change. The rhetoric around change is there. The failure to adapt, and sustain any positive change that does happen is rooted in fear of what will happen if people begin to have less dread of missing budget!
One story illustrates this very well. One senior partner took his fearless leadership training to heart. He had been working on a £5million pitch to a client. His dilemma was that he could see a much bigger project to discuss with his client. The more significant project would be ten times the size and budget. He fearlessly began a discussion with his client about a £50million solution – ten times the spend, ten times the profit. The client was inspired: Group HQ was seriously considering his ideas.
Our fearless leader returned to his London office to share the news that they could stall the smaller pitch and work on something much more significant. Suddenly his vision of a £50million project was blocked – by his own firm. They gave one reason: his initial project would produce revenues in the next quarter, while his new solution would take nine months to show a return. He was under career-threatening pressure to close the smaller deal and worry about the balance later. His most courageous move was to follow. He reached out to a contact in the American Head Office, and he found a sympathetic ear. With some of the personal risk mitigated, he pressed for the freedom to pursue the more substantial, slower, deal. Back in London, he was told that whatever the outcome, he had gained a black mark on his file. Jumping two levels of leadership ahead of his reporting line was not the done thing. The mixed messages are: be fearless, develop new relationships, present innovative solutions but delay any quarterly revenue at your peril. This presents a considerable challenge for this giant firm: when the brightest and best millennials reach an age to fill the most senior positions, there will be none applying here. While it can still attract some very bright graduates, many leave for other firms, and those who remain tend to be the least fearless.
Fear is the costliest and the most contagious of human conditions. It has many guises: caution, anxiety, inhibition, shyness, procrastination, even depression. It arrives through the door every morning with every employee from the CEO to the newest recruit: it is a universal human response not to change but to the uncertain and the unknown. The mental health, the mindset, the emotional intelligence of every single employee is different. And enlightened leaders fully understand that to break free of all the restraints on the enterprise, their followers need to break the chains of what they carry in their heads.
Even the most fearless extreme sports athlete can experience debilitating shyness with people outside their immediate circle. The most robust and most battle-hardened CEO can fear an intimate conversation with a son or daughter. Military veterans who have laid their life on the line for their nation can sink into anxiety and depression at the thought of returning to the relative disorder of civilian life. Even a future king is speaking extremely openly about the critical importance of what goes on inside our heads. Prince William’s recent BBC documentary on Mental Health should be a wake-up call and an inspiration to business leaders. Fear resides inside every single one of us: the question is what to do with it.
What a few great men and women do is learn how to use their fear to drive them to action. The rest of humanity allows fear to conquer their faculties: they stay silent, they don’t act. When I consider our species as a whole, I imagine this will always be so. But I have learned that everyone, regardless of their upbringing, educational level, or experience, can choose to feel the fear and do it anyway. They have learned how to take command in those moments of doubt, caution or inhibition – and act anyway! And by doing so, they grow. Instantaneously, and massively. One coaching client discovered that “I am better than I thought I was!” And so it is with everyone who breaks through a self-imposed barrier.
Leadership is first about discovering that:
We only need courage in moments of fear. Speaking up for what is right. Challenging the status quo. Being intimate. Trusting our gut. Every single day we are given ample opportunity to stretch our comfort zone which, once expanded, never shrinks back. When you have a chance to keep cool with your children when they are driving you crazy, think of what the fearless choice will be. If you are trying to decide to quit a job and start a business, think of what the fearless choice would be. If you dream of being comfortable speaking in public, imagine what the fearless choice would be. When you consider changing the systems that create fear imagine what the fearless choice would be.
Anyone who achieves beyond their expectations discovers that they can take command of the stories in their head. Leaders are just people who know this to be true and choose to spread the contagion actively.