Organizations, fear and leadership

My wife, who’s working on her MBA, is currently wading through a class that focuses on leadership. The other night she observed that “there sure are a lot of people out there developing theories on leadership, aren’t there?”

Well, yes, and for good reason. Most of those people are working to provide hooks for consulting practices, which can be pretty marketable. Why? Every company needs strong leaders. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that very few companies, if any, have as much in the way of leadership skills as they would like. Even if they have strong leadership at the top, you need leadership at all levels of the organization in order to be truly effective, and every business I’ve ever encountered had at least a little room for improvement. (Lest I be accused of excusing myself here, I’m including my own previous businesses in this.) Since it’s hard to find great leaders, many organizations work to cultivate better leadership skills among their existing employee bases, and that’s where consultants with leadership theories come in.

Are Leaders Made or Born?

The problem, of course, is that leadership is hard. For starters, let’s understand that leadership and management aren’t the same thing. We’re not going to delve deeply into the characteristics of leadership here, but we will observe (and pardon my oversimplification) that it generally thrives on vision and the ability to motivate people, whereas management has more to do with making the trains run on time. If you have somebody who embodies all of these capabilities, that’s something special.

Let’s also note that leadership is a function of multiple characteristics, and it’s possible to have some but not others. For example, a CEO may have so much charisma that people will follow him off a cliff, and so little vision that off a cliff is exactly where he leads them. As a result, it’s possible to develop leadership skills without necessarily producing a full-spectrum leader.

I’ve had the misfortune of dealing with some bad leaders in the past, so when it comes to organizational and leadership issues I should acknowledge that I have my cynical moments. Which is why I concluded by telling my wife that when push comes to shove, real leaders are a rare commodity.

Leadership and the Fear Problem

All this is leading back around to my post from last week, where I explained why fear is an organization killer. One of my colleagues liked the piece, but said “what you need to do now is explain how they can fix the problem.” Great advice, that.

So I thought for awhile about what I might say, and many suggestions presented themselves. Plenty has been written about the value of promoting healthy internal communication, for instance. Plenty more has been written about empowering employees and capturing their ideas. There are structural measures (breaking down the hierarchy and promoting genuine teamwork among equals). Much can be done on the cultural front. And of course, there’s always Jim Collins’s edict about getting the right people on the bus. All of these areas offer promise for those interested in creating an atmosphere of professional investment in their businesses.

But the more I flailed away at the tactics, the more I realized that there’s only one real answer, and it has to do with … you guessed it … leadership. In a nutshell, fear in an organization, or the lack of it, is a result of the personality and will of those calling the shots. In a smaller company this may be one person, and larger environments may have evolved a collective culture that’s larger than any one person. In either case, if leadership is committed to fully engaged employees, then whatever tactics are employed will likely to meet with some success. If leadership is okay with a culture of fear, on the other hand, then all the great empowerment programs in the world are going to fail.

Put another way, trying to develop a list of “things you can do” to combat fear in an organization is like articulating individual leadership skills – here is a specific leaderlike thing that you can do, etc. But in the end, driving the fear out of an organization and replacing it with a culture of engagement won’t result from leadership skills or tactics or programs. It will only occur as a manifestation of true, full-on leadership.

I wish I had an easier answer for you, but I don’t.

6 replies »

  1. It’s obvious to me that the leader is always the guy standing or looking over the shoulder of an employee in a stock “business meeting” photo. Look at that guy, he’s got his sleeves rolled up half way, that’s leadership.

  2. Very few large organizations have any leaders at the top because leaders tend to be fired (they may call it “laid off”) long before they reach the C-suite. In fact, I’d say it’s tough to find any real leaders at the director level or above.

    Leaders generally see something that needs doing and then do it. Other people follow them because they see the rightness of what the leader is trying to accomplish. If that “something” happens to make someone above nervous for any number of reasons, the leader is usually history. Being right doesn’t matter. In fact, cynically, I’d say that being right is more likely to get you fired than being wrong.

    Here are just a few things managers say that leaders never do:

    1. The words “head count.”
    2. “Our sole purpose in life is to produce superior shareholder value.”
    3. “I know we’re laying off, but I can’t give pay cuts to executives because then we wouldn’t be giving them competitive compensation.”
    4. “Employees are our greatest asset.”
    5. “I motivate my employees with spot bonuses.”
    6. The word “employee” when used to talk about people who report to him/her.
    7. “Let’s talk about the value prop of working here.”

    As for the fear issue, let’s face it: The people who tend to get to the top in existing, large organizations got there by being motivated by fear (to a large degree) and by using fear to their advantage. They are managers by nature, training, and experience. It might be possible to build a newly large organization founded by an entrepreneur in a way that reduces fear to a minimum, though.

  3. The problem with leading by fear is that it knocks the leader out of the loop. People don’t tell you anything because: a. you over-react and/or b. you don’t want to hear bad news. That’s how you get isolated (lonely at the top). Think Stalin (who I’m reading about now), Hitler.

  4. JS: Yeah, you’d have a shot if you were starting from scratch, or if you got to be in charge. Really in charge, that is, not just nominally in charge of a powerful nest of vipers. But that’s a huge if. I tried not to overstate the point that fear is rampant, but perhaps that can’t be overstated.

    Russ: Exactly. Without revealing any details, let’s just say that if I had to I could show you cases where the boss (not necessarily the CEO here – this goes for departmental bosses, too) got put on his/her people’s “need to know basis” list. An isolated leader can be starved to death by his/her team. And here’s where you can refer all the way back to Morgan’s list of sources of power for a better description of how that might happen….