Fear is a Dirty Word

28 Jul 2014. Robert E. KaplanPodcast

When my strong-minded daughter was eight or nine, out of nowhere she balked at getting in the water . The waves were calm that day at our favorite beach, where side by side we had taken many swims. “Daddy, I’m afraid of the sharks,” she explained. Appealing to her then indomitable will, I thought to ask, “Do you want your fear to boss you around?” Her solution: she had me swim between her and the open ocean.

To some extent, we are all “bossed around” by our fears. Ironically, this is also true of strong leaders. Even in the present era of empowerment and inclusiveness, being a “strong leader” has a positive connotation. Direct, directive, demanding leaders are an ideal choice to lead an organization that needs to consistently turn out results, or to be grabbed by the scruff of the neck and turned around, or to have its bold vision muscled into practical reality. But a strong leader’s fears and anxieties can often cause those desirable strengths to degenerate into undesirable command-and-control behaviors.

Alex was such a leader. Very smart, extremely knowledgeable about the field, energetic and articulate, he was also outspoken to a fault. In meetings with his staff he stated his views not just emphatically but also too early, putting a damper on participation. No pushover, he stoutly, too stoutly, defended his views. And at those times his displeasure was written all over his face.
I told Alex like I’ve told many senior managers, the good news is you’re a strong leader and the bad news is you’re a strong leader. Alex got it. Summing up the input on him and our exploration of it he concluded: “I force solutions on people.”

What drives that?, I asked him. He had no idea. We only got somewhere when I thought to ask, “What about your son—what is at stake with him?” Alex had mentioned that when he gave his 16 year old son pointers after a soccer game or gave him free advice on how to improve his study habits, sparks flew. After a moment’s thought, Alex came out with: “I’m a little more insecure about my son than I want to admit.” At that moment he tumbled to the idea that fear drove his overcontrol with his son. Then he immediately saw the same dynamic in his leadership style—how his anxiety pushed him to push his views on others.

What was striking is how he reacted to that revelation. Paraphrasing “insecure,” I asked, “Are you anxious about how your son will turn out?”

Alex grimaced and swept his arm across the table as if to rid himself of something ugly or offensive. “Anxiety is a sign of weakness,” he spit out. A few minutes later he said, “I’m spent,” and asked to end early, which we did.

Like a lot of strong leaders, Alex was repulsed at the thought that anxiety or fear could apply to him, that it stuck to him like some foul-smelling substance. His revulsion—I call it "the yuk factor"—prevented him from confronting his over-control issues. As the poet Dylan Thomas wrote, we live in fear of fear.

Another senior guy micromanaged like crazy—second-guessed, nitpicked, followed up hyperactively, “stuck his nose into everything.” You could hear the skepticism, the implied judgment, in his voice. Not only did his meddling turn people off, it hurt his own credibility. As we tried to get to the bottom of his excessive control, he found himself uttering the dreaded word. His face fell: “I’m tangled up with the word fear. I have a problem saying I have fear.”

Yuk blocks the way. It’s not just that leaders don’t know that fear lurks behind their performance problems. They don’t want to know.

Alex proved able to get past yuk. By our next meeting he had set a goal: “Control my fear, not other people.” The evidence is that he met the goal. According to his staff several months later, he had ameliorated his approach. According to him, he was doing better with his son.

Strong leader or not, when fear takes a bite out of your performance, there’s nothing you can do about it if you don’t know it’s there or if, once you catch a glimpse of it, you throw up. To contain fear, to comparmentalize it, you’ve got to make it palatable. Only then do you stand a fighting chance of ruling fear versus have it rule you.