The Leaders Notebook

Hard questions, ambiguity and opinion for leaders

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A Constructive Use for Fear

March 19th, 2012 · No Comments · Playing a Bigger Game, Sliding Down the Razor Blade of Life

Fear can be a powerful motivator.   But how it is used tells us a lot about a leader.  There have been a number of leaders (both fictional and real) who were masters at using fear and intimidation to get results.

Have a look at the YouTube clip to the right.  Talk about emotional intelligence!  You only need to see the look on the commander’s face before Vader even gets off the ship  to know how well Vader uses fear and intimidation to his advantage.  His value systems may be in question, but Darth Vader is very aware of the power of fear.  The rest of the clip does nothing to improve his image.  The problem with this kind of leadership is that it is not sustainable and creates enormous organization damage in the wake of successful delivery.

Luckily, the web has provided us with a more positive version of using fear as a motivator, in the form of a fourth grader with a helmet cam on her first ski jump.  If you have not seen this video, which has been a viral hit on the web, I suggest you have a look.  It is much more uplifting and hopefully more instructive than the first.

In his famous gothic novel, Dracula, Bram Stoker gives us a memorable statement about starting change.  His character, Abraham Van Helsing, says to Jonathan Harker, a man facing a very unpleasant and frightening task, “…a moment’s courage and it is done.”  Listening to what sounds like the parental coaching for this courageous young girl at the top of the hill, I can imagine lots of way for this to go wrong.  But the parents (or coaches- whoever the adults were) did not pressure the kid.  Something in her wanted to go and was working its way to the surface.  Her desire to go was larger and in the end more powerful than her fear.  You can even here her rational mind try to provide distraction by ask questions about the slope and the process.  Inherently she knew that it took a moment of bravery to start the process- and then there would be no stopping it.

Perhaps most instructive of all was how this young skier, once committed to a very intimidating experience, kept her cool and remembered her coaching to make a successful and safe first jump.  And notice how quickly her fear turned to excitement and pride.  We do not know how her second time will go, but in the moment it is hard to view the video without wanting to celebrate with her.

Leaders face these moments every day.  The high-risk path is not always the high reward path.  Neither is the safe path always a cop out.  And the ability to tell the difference is critical. To recognize a major challenge, one that generates fear and trepidation but also is the clear growth step, and channel the fear into a moment’s courage is a critical capacity for leaders.  Unfortunately, few of those major steps forward are dealt with in 15 seconds or so of adrenaline.  Organizational leaders must often make the big decision that will obligate their company to years of change and challenge.  The dot-com run up showed us how much adrenaline can drive those decisions- as did the run up to the real estate melt down.

But the leader who can set aside the use of fear as a motivating factor for others while channeling his or her own fear and focusing on the rewards and risks will have courage to sustain the enterprise through a longer, if no less intense, organizational change.  Better to say “A moment’s courage and it is started- then we have to stay present and focused all the way to the end.”

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