What Is Fear-Based Leadership
Technology enthusiast, passionate about building great teams and scaling organisations
Fear of not being included, fear of not knowing, fear of status, fear of failure, fear of unknowns, fear of criticism, fear of change, fear of being an imposter can cause a leader to act in undesirable ways. Leading from fear can create a toxic culture in which people play safe, avoid mistakes and lay low in effect creating an organisation that does not grow due to mediocre performance and unrealised potential.
Fear is natural, even in leaders. It is not a bad thing as long as you learn to manage it and put it to productive use by not letting it be the basis of how you act or make decisions.
When a team performs poorly, energy in the environment seems low and employees appear to be disengaged and unmotivated, leaders need to take one hard look at how others perceive them in the workplace and the impact their behaviour and action has on others.
Leading from fear, even if unintentionally can have profound impact on whether people in the organisation feel connected, cared for and empowered or pushed aside, constrained to make decisions and held back to voice their opinions.
To be an effective leader, you need to overcome your fears. The first step to improve anything is to recognise and acknowledge it. John Maxwell put this so succinctly
“You can’t grow yourself unless you know yourself”.
Remember, leadership is not in the title. It’s in simple acts - shift from me to we, give up control, build trust, genuinely care for your people, learn from your mistakes, accept you don’t know, value multiple viewpoints and seek feedback to learn from your blind spots.
This change won’t happen overnight and it will be hard. You can lead a life of significance and be the leader your people want by learning to recognise these 9 signs of leading from fear.
9 signs you are leading from fear
Awareness and acceptance is the first state of transformation. As a leader, you may believe that you do not lead from fear, which may be far from reality.
In The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership, Jim Dethmer and Diana Chapman describes how self-awareness is extremely powerful for leaders
Once leaders develop self-awareness, they create the possibility for shifting, a master skill of conscious leaders. Shifting is moving from closed to open, from defensive to curious, from wanting to be right to wanting to learn, and from fighting for the survival of the individual ego to leading from a place of security and trust.
If you are willing to let go of your ego and be open to face reality, these 9 signs will provide guidance to determine if you are leading from fear and headed in the wrong direction.
1. Run around with fear of missing out
Do you feel like you need to be part of every discussion, every meeting, every decision? Will things go wrong if you are not involved? If being in charge gives you the rush, you are dealing with FOMO - fear of missing out.
The desire to be in control every minute of the day stems from lack of trust in your team and not giving them enough opportunity to step up and take charge.
Without empowering your team to make independent decisions you either need to be omnipresent or run the risk of building an unproductive team that achieves too little and does not grow.
When people in the team need confirmation and approval every step of the way, they do not develop instincts and thinking required to be self-reliant, which hampers their growth in the long run.
2. Make safe decisions with fear of failure
If you ignore new learning opportunities, seek simple goals, avoid making hard decisions and lack commitment to vision and goals, you may be dealing with fear of failure.
Being risk-averse prevents you from taking up any new challenges with the fear you might fail. Without the courage to even try, you create a workplace environment where safe choices are preferred over creativity and innovation.
When people in the team learn to play safe, the focus to succeed at all costs prevents them from questioning the effectiveness of their work. As active curiosity through experimentation, exploration, and constructive conflicts takes a back seat, learning in the team stalls leading to unhappiness and dis-satisfaction.
Remember, failure teaches us what success can’t. As a leader if you do not encourage risk-taking, you will not let people make mistakes which is essential to learning and growth.
3. Hold onto status with fear of criticism
Are you afraid to seek inputs from your team, do you encourage opinions that agree with your viewpoint and reject ideas that are not inline with your assumptions and beliefs? If you consider difference of opinion as an attack on your status, you are dealing with fear of criticism.
Silence is not a sign of acceptance within the team, it’s an indication that people in your team do not see value in sharing their thoughts.
People who engage with others and inspire them to voice their opinions and exchange ideas with the intent to find a better solution as opposed to considering it as a means to increase their status by proving a point are able to build trust and respect with their team members.
They do not consider disapproval as a sign of criticism, but rather as a means to enable better collaboration. Criticism is not an attack on your intelligence or a means to challenge your status, it’s a let out for creativity and innovation.
4. Do not challenge directly with fear of conflict
Do you avoid difficult conversations, procrastinate with the hope that issues will resolve themselves or ignore conflicts with the feeling that you are not capable of handling it? If challenging directly gives you an uncomfortable feeling, you have a fear of conflict.
Ignoring issues and not attending to them at the right time can cause mis-understanding and un-alignment on expectations with far reaching consequences in the future.
When dealing with feelings of self doubt as an imposter and not able to muster up the courage to handle the conflict, remember the right attitude with the intent to gain a better perspective on the situation will enable you to engage in a constructive discussion.
Difficult conversations are a ladder to success in organisations. Without them, people in the organisation will be out of sync with reality and will fail to achieve desired outcomes.
5. Do not question the status quo with fear of dislike
If you act in confirmation with others with a desire to please them, if likability is important to you and if you seek approval to make others happy, then you fear being disliked.
Going with easy and popular opinions as opposed to taking a hard stand and speaking up can make some people happy in the short-term, but the same people will stop trusting you when they see the results of your advice.
Your job as a leader is not to please others or make them like you, it’s to do what’s right. If you want to act in favour of your people and the organisation without the burden of being liked, then learn to stand up, speak and say no to things that do not align with your goals. You will emerge as a much stronger leader that others want to emulate.
Likability is not something that you need to build, it’s something that happens to you. Climbing on the bandwagon without questioning where it’s headed, ignoring acceptable standards of behaviour in the team and not questioning the status quo is not an act of leadership.
In his book, Start With Why, Simon Sinek talks about trust
A great leader understands that earning the trust of an organization doesn’t come from setting out to impress everyone, it comes from setting out to serve those who serve you. It is the invisible trust that gives a leader the following they need to get things done. Trust is not a checklist. Fulfilling all your responsibilities does not create trust. Trust is a feeling, not a rational experience. Trust begins to emerge when we have a sense that another person is driven by things other than their own self-gain
6. Do not accept vulnerability with fear of weakness
If you do not accept responsibility for your decisions, blame others for not delivering on your goals and try to cover up your mistakes, you have a fear of weakness.
It’s easy to latch onto a role in the drama triangle and act as a victim, but it takes courage to step out of it and assume responsibility.
Acknowledging vulnerability is not weakness, it’s a sign of leadership. Having the courage to stand up and accept when you make wrong decisions, when things do not turn out the way you anticipated and when you make mistakes will establish trust and credibility with your people.
It will create a safe environment in which employees can voice their opinion, take accountability for their actions and make mistakes but also take responsibility for those mistakes.
7. Hunt for mistakes with fear of credibility
If you are on the constant look out for mistakes, point them at the first occurrence and worry that any mistake can potentially cause a project to fail and question your dependability as a leader, you have a fear of credibility.
Constantly finding faults and pointing out shortcomings without appreciating people for the goodness of their work can make them resent you for watching over them like a hawk. It will also develop a tendency in your team to make safe choices, hide mistakes and blame others when things go wrong.
Even with your best effort to avoid mistakes, some projects will fail. There’s no doubt about that. Pointing out mistakes will only make things worse as it will lower the morale of your team.
Credibility is not in successfully delivering a project. It’s in how you develop your team to face the challenges with a not give-up attitude, how they strike back in the event of a failure and tackle the problem head-on.
8. Lead by authority with fear of outcomes
If you tell people what to do, if you believe work will not get done unless you keep a close watch and if you jump at the first chance of resolving an issue, you have fear of outcomes.
Tendency to sideline others and take over the issue with the notion that you have more experience than others, always telling people what to do without giving them an opportunity to learn from their mistakes will get the work done in the short term. However, without planning and optimising for long term effects, the team will be limited in its output and will only learn to work under constant monitoring.
Coach your team, inspire them, but then give them space to figure things out on their own. Autonomy not only boosts self confidence, it can be a great motivator to achieve exceptional results.
9. Stay within comfort zone with fear of change
Do you delay decision making or take too long to decide when the decision requires stepping out of your comfort zone to explore new ways of thinking and doing things, do you have a tendency to grab onto familiar ideas and are you reluctant to determine if your work is inline with the future demands?
If you live with the problems of the past without questioning the needs of the future, you have a fear of change.
Leaders who look beyond the bounds of the organisation challenge their beliefs and assumptions with the desire for a better future without fear of change. They welcome change as a means to learn and grow.
Fear of change can make you ignore signs that can lead to the downfall of your organisation while the ability to apply first principles thinking and identify when our old way of doing things is obsolete can enable you to build organisations with long lasting impact.
Do you want to develop leadership skills and qualities that make people want to follow you? Then stop leading from fear and inspire others by establishing trust, empathy, courage and empowerment.
What kind of a leader do you want to be?
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