Saturday, August 3, 2013

Does Your Business Leadership Style Rely on Fear?

leadership-by-fearTrying to be a business leader by instilling fear in your employees and partners is never a good approach, but it is particularly devastating in a startup. Yet I see this approach used all too often by new entrepreneurs, most of whom are not natural tyrants, but who are fighting to mask their own internal fears and insecurities about starting a business.

In a recent book titled “Leading Without Fear,” Laurie K. Cure, PhD, helped me understand that fear is a natural reaction to the risks associated with a new venture, and different people handle this fear in different ways. Some are able to read the danger signals, and catapult themselves and everyone around them into action without fear, resulting in progress and success.

Others intentionally or unintentionally project their own fear into a weapon that gets used on their team and constituents to get things done and assure accountability, at least in the short term. According to Cure, there are three main reasons that entrepreneurs resort to propagating fear:

  1. Need to establish a sense of urgency. Sometimes it seems like instilling fear is the quickest and most effective way to instill a sense of urgency in other team members. In fact, it does work in the short term, but in the longer term it breeds mistrust and cynicism, which quickly erodes morale and leads to reprisals worse than the challenge.

  2. Don’t know any other way. Often new entrepreneur leaders reach a point of desperation in dealing with people, and hope that they can somehow shame, anger, or scare people into behavior change and desired results. This approach usually stems from primal reactions during early childhood, or a specific cultural background.

  3. Engulfed in the flames of their own fear. Others use fear because they are simply afraid, and unable to hide it. It requires extreme discipline not to project your fear onto others. When leaders are in fear, be it for their own security, sense of affiliation, or self-esteem fears, they become blind to how they might be using fear in their own leadership.

Smart entrepreneurial leaders avoid these reasons, and don't use fear because of its devastating consequences on their long-term business success. Here are a few of the consequences:

  • Fear drives the team into fixed and safe positions, allowing competitors an easy advantage.
  • Fear short-circuits change, creativity, and innovation, which are the life-blood of startups.
  • Fear limits rational discussion of alternatives, leading to poor decisions and inaction.
  • Fear fosters suspicion, mistrust, and cynicism of the leader and the startup.
  • Fear tends to turn the focus inward to survival, rather than outward to customers.

Based on the insights I see from Cure’s book and others, I recommend the following strategies for reducing fear in your own mind and in the minds of your constituents:

  1. Increase your own self-awareness. This is essentially your ability to know yourself, your motives, desires, and personality. Who are you, and why do you do what you do? It is only with self-awareness that you can grow and learn. Self-awareness simply requires an ongoing practice that you can engage in and make a part of your lifestyle.

  2. Be clear on all your goals, and communicate these regularly to your team. If either you or they don’t know the goals, neither of you will know when a threat is imminent, or if everyone is in alignment. When you are out of alignment with the team in terms of goals, everyone feels torn, dissatisfied, and fearful.

  3. Focus more on the positive side of risk. Everyone’s brain has a reward pathway that creates a sense of euphoria and pleasure when you overcome high odds, or do something innovative. Stop focusing so much on the things that can go wrong, and anticipate the joys of progress and success.

All entrepreneurs have to take risks and provide leadership to succeed, but driving yourself and your team with fear is not the answer. The best leadership is providing real motivation from the work itself, and the drive to build something lasting. Fear has no role in either of these.

Marty Zwilling


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