Why Fear Is Not a Leadership Game

The missing link in leadership

Have you heard the one about me being charged by a lioness? Of course you have! I keep telling it. Because she changed me.

She taught me something about fear (obviously). And she gave me an insight into leadership (not so obvious).

I got away from her because here I am telling you about it (really, really obvious).

So what saved me?

To escape the lions, be good at trust and compliance

Compliance and trust in action? (John Leech Sketch Archives 1841-1864)

What saved me from that charging kitty in the African bush? Leadership. Leadership in the form of the game ranger.

Although he carried a rifle, he did not shoot her. When we asked him why not, he said that if he had shot her, then he would have lost his job. His job was to protect the wildlife, not kill it.

What then saved us? Trust. Our trust in the ranger and, because of that trust, our willingness to comply with his shouted instructions.

And there you have the problem in organizations, especially in times of fear and uncertainty. Compliance without trust. As hierarchies of power, organizations are good at demanding compliance but ineffective at building trust.

The catch, of course, is that you must be good at both. If you want to escape the lions out there.

Manage fear to trigger appropriate action

A little fear is a useful management tool, yes? (John Leech Sketch Archives 1841-1864)

I worry about fear in the workplace. Don’t misunderstand me. A little fear is a useful management tool. But I’m talking about too much fear of the kind we have today.

Too much fear makes us do stupid things. Like freeze when we should run or run when we should stand still. In the moment of fear, we just don’t know which is right.

Neither do managers. We teach managers to manage action, not the emotions behind the actions.

Yet, I have watched leaders deal with fear instead of actions. Like our game ranger in the African bush. When the lioness charged, some of us wanted to run. Others froze in fear. But the ranger knew what to do because he was not in fear.

Through the way he communicated his instructions, he managed our fear so that we acted appropriately. We walked away from the lioness, backwards and unharmed.

Leaders don’t manage actions. They manage fear.

Expertise does not make you a leader

Who’s the relative expert? (free public domain: clipart-people.com)

Has a lioness ever charged you? No? Well, I guess that makes me the expert. And if a lioness suddenly appeared in your life, you will look to me for expert advice.

But the real question is this. Will you do what I say?

That, after all, is leadership. People look to you and they follow you.

There you have it. The leadership insight I gained in the African bush. The mere fact that I am the relative expert when it comes to charging lionesses does not make me a leader.

Unless your trust in me overcomes your fear and your natural inclination to run, you won’t do what I say, you won’t follow my lead.

And as you will discover too late, it is not a good idea to run from a lioness. Nor from your leadership problems.

Welcome to my side of the nonsense divide.