I’ve always believed that fear based leadership is detrimental to an organization’s overall health. It can plague an organization like a nasty virus and left unchecked, becomes toxic to employees, customers, and business growth.
The inverse of leading by fear is leading through empowerment.
Both methods can have powerful impacts on your business, yet they yield vastly different results.
I listen to podcasts every morning when I walk. I recently heard a great story from Ben Rhodes (former Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications for President Obama) and Jon Favreau (former Director of Speechwriting for President Obama).
The story is about a speech written during Obama’s Presidential campaign. He was traveling to Berlin, Germany and it promised to be a very important foreign policy speech. Jon and Ben were writing the speech and Obama had conveyed that he wanted to get the message across that America is much more than our military power.
The campaign was about a sense of collective effort and community, and they wanted to illustrate that message with the right words in Obama’s speech. Included was what they believed to be the German word for community, thinking that would be a nice touch and maybe even a grand gesture. They did their homework on the word (Google the heck out of it) before presenting the speech and even ran the word past their German language experts. The word got the thumbs up from all parties.
Three hours before Obama was to deliver the speech to hundreds of thousands of people, Jon and Ben serendipitously learned that the word had been used as a theme in one of Hitler’s first speeches at the Reichstag. That’s right – a term used by Nazi’s had nearly made it into Obama’s foreign policy speech on the world stage.
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A true test of a leader
Ben quickly let Obama know about the needed change and Obama was keenly aware of how close he came to making the grave mistake, especially since he was an American presidential candidate at the time. To their surprise, Obama’s reaction was calm laughter. He said to his aid, who was standing in the room, “Ok, looks like we’ve got the new employee of the month here.”
Business is a high stakes game.
It’s a high wire endeavor without a net. In this case, had the word been used, the potential consequences can’t be overstated. But a true leader knows that yelling and blaming only exacerbates the situation.
Instead, if the boss keeps his or her cool and reacts with respect, it allows the players to be empowered to take risks. It enlists employees as partners. When you can laugh as a group at tense moments, the lesson from the mistake is embedded positively.
Knowing that the boss isn’t going to yell takes the edge off. Being kind, patient and willing to let employees make mistakes allows them to be creative, bold and different.
In the fear based leadership approach – the reaction is often yelling and blaming – it closes off what can be imagined. It creates a culture of being scared all the time. When employees work scared, the business cannot deliver an outstanding product.
Fact: No one likes to feel bad.
We’ve all made mistakes at work. Have you ever been subjected to fear based leadership? I’ve worked for the “yellers” that are driven by their ego and fear. I’ve worked for people that no matter what you did, it was never good enough. I never wanted to emulate that once I became a boss because it just made me feel bad making others feel bad. I wanted us to deliver the absolute best experience we possibly could and I knew that making people afraid all the time wasn’t going to get us there.
Fear-based leadership is not genuine leadership.
It’s a mad king holding his court hostage. It’s yelling, bossing people around, barking orders without regard, and treating team members as tools for personal gain. It puts constraints on business growth, never allowing the organization to realize its full potential.
Young or old, experienced or inexperienced, knowing that a boss’ reaction is to support rather than tear down does wonders for productivity. It builds a culture of trust, which is missing in many organizations today.
Authentic leaders aren’t driven by shallow praise or outside approval. They refrain from using fear as a tactic to enforce control. Instead, true leadership involves inspiring, empowering and energizing others through passion, a clear vision, and setting a positive example. Even a minor adjustment in how one leads can result in a significant organizational transformation.
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