Fear-based approaches to life and leadership have been around for centuries. At its core, fear helps us to survive, to run from danger. But when our view of the world is tainted by fear, we will end up like the folktale character, Chicken Little.
In one version of the story, Chicken Little is struck on the head by an acorn that falls from a tree and hysterically responds by proclaiming to anyone who will listen that “the sky is falling.” The chick convinces some friends that his fears are well-founded. The tale has multiple endings, but the most prominent one results in everyone’s demise at the hands of a clever fox who uses their irrational emotions to lure them into his den.
Today’s complex world and often chaotic workplaces are easy to manipulate by fear-based leaders. They point out all the dangers, real or imagined, that we are facing. Much of their success with this tactic is based on our selfish desire to protect our own interests.
Fear-based work environments often exhibit specific characteristics. There is a focus on personal goals versus team or company projects. The truth is often missing or badly distorted. Mistakes or problems are subjected to the blame-game with little or no personal accountability.
Managers and leaders who rely on fear to get things done tend to be manipulative and controlling. They paint a dismal picture of the future. Sometimes they can be obsessed with fixing things or resigned to how bad everything is. They often view the world as though resources are scarce and must be carefully guarded.
How can we transform a fear-based approach to leadership? Here are a few ideas:
- Inspire faith in the future and in others. Focus on what is working and how to leverage the strengths of employees and the organization. Don’t deny problems, just challenge those you lead to reframe them into opportunities.
- Empower those you serve to be responsible for their own success. Fear often paralyzes us from taking action. Show those you serve that you believe in their potential. Provide resources for personal development and make it easy for them to do their jobs with minimal oversight.
- Change the language. When problems show up, and they will, ask “How might we…?” instead of saying, “There’s nothing we can do.” Show some enthusiasm and offer positive feedback on a regular basis. Frame ideas in terms of possibilities and abundance.
Chicken Little never questioned his assumptions about what happened. He wasn’t curious about the cause. He didn’t seek out other points of view or try to find an eyewitness. His emotional response was based on the need to survive whatever calamity was taking place. His lack of faith in a positive outcome so clouded his judgment that he overlooked the real danger when it showed up.
Faith in ourselves and others is a helpful antidote to fear’s focus on survival.
In spite of my own faith in the future, I am less optimistic about our chances for reducing or eliminating fear-based leadership. The social, political, and even religious structures we live under, all use fear to manipulate and control. Until we recognize that the “sky is not falling” our story’s ending might look a lot like the plot from Chicken Little.
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