I have run into senior executives of organizations, and often times they are the very top ones, who have successfully used fear as a leadership tool to get their direct reports, and their organizations, “get results.” An example might be the CEO who publicly chastises his cabinet in front of each other, or puts someone on the spot, or takes a jab below the proverbial belt — knowing full well that the defenseless victim is too intimidated to either respond or fight back. I say “successfully used fear” because these leaders often created and exponentially grew the organizations they lead, and the results in revenue, growth, and profitability are often quite good.
I’ll let you determine the merits of this type of leadership style but what I’d like to discuss is why fear is such a powerful tool. First, it is the most powerful “chemical” in your body. Fear will almost always trump other emotions like love, anger, or joy. From a cognitive perspective, fear can either slow down or completely shut down rational thought, causing us to respond in a very instinctive (fight or flight) way. Fear is created when a threat is stimulated, whether real or perceived. What exactly is being threatened varies constantly within you (i.e., what is threatening to you today might not be tomorrow) and among people (i.e., what is threatening to one person might not be to another).
In this context, it is very important that if you are a leader or manager, and in the context of the workplace, that you fully acknowledge what generally and specifically it is you are afraid of. For example, you may fear losing your job, your title, your prestige, your home, your peer-perception, your compensation, your dignity, your spouse, your children, your lifestyle, your car — name it, whatever it is. When I ask people what they are afraid of, I often startle them and get surprised at how many of us can actually answer this question honestly. Knowing your fears is the first step in overcoming them, and subsequently not allowing others to induce it in you — not giving them the power over you.
I find that most fears are actually self-inflicted and produced, and this deep insecurity drives us to exhibit performance not even close to desirable or to our best. In these cases, it is incredibly easy for a General Patton-like leader to leverage that to meet his/her objectives. One problem with this approach is that fear is an emotion which constantly changes. Since the emotion constantly changes, using fear as a tactic for high performance is not a sustainable model, especially if the victim chooses to grow.
What are your fears? Who has control over them? How have others used your fears to achieve their objectives? Take a moment and ponder these important questions this week.