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Are You Leading from a Place of Fear?

Sixteen Signs You May Be Practicing Cowardly Leadership

Mike StaverIt’s a tricky time to be a leader. With the economy so unforgiving right now, making smart business decisions is critical. That’s true not just in terms of strategy (whether to change your product mix or move into a new marketplace) but also relationships (whether to fire the toxic high performer or address a conflict head-on). All actions have consequences. So does lack of action. And with the margin for error so slim, you want to make sure you’re thinking as coolly and clearly as possible.

Mike Staver’s advice? Don’t let fear cloud your decision making.

“Don’t get me wrong, we all feel fear,” says Staver, author of Leadership Isn’t for Cowards (Wiley, June 2012, ISBN: 978-1-118-17683-2, $24.95). “What separates the proverbial men from the boys, and women from the girls, is how we respond to that fear. Courageous leaders face what needs to be faced and do what needs to be done. Cowardly leaders make excuses, hide their heads in the sand, and generally take the easy way out.”

In his book, Staver explores the hidden fears that keep us from taking the quick, decisive actions courageous leadership requires, and offers a wealth of practical tips for conquering them. He explains that, besides harming your company and crippling your career potential, fear-centered leadership can hurt the very people you are supposed to be guiding and nurturing: your employees.

By definition, says Staver, all leaders “mess with people’s lives.” That’s why it’s so important to make sure you’re leading from a place of clarity and awareness—courage—and not letting fear drive your decisions.

“Whether you’re messing with their lives in a positive, growth-inspiring way or a negative, spirit-crushing way depends on the clarity with which you make decisions and execute,” he explains. “Fear obscures that clarity—especially fear that masquerades as something else.”

You don’t have to be an out-and-out coward to let fear impact your leadership. Many people are unaware of how profoundly fear influences their decision making. Staver says you may be leading from a place of fear if the following apply to you:

You frequently take the easy way out. In other words, you avoid taking bold, decisive action because it makes you uncomfortable. Then, you rationalize why you didn’t do what you really needed to do: I wanted to go to the national trade show, but we just couldn’t get the prototype ready by the deadline…or I’ve always thought we should take part in the green initiative, but the CEO would just shoot down the suggestion, so there was no point in bringing it up.

Generally, says Staver, such rationalizations boil down to fear. What if you unveiled the prototype at the trade show and it flopped? What if you approached the CEO with your green initiative idea and he rejected you—or worse, what if he didn’t reject you and then you had to make it work? It’s easier to avoid taking action (at least in the short term), but it’s also a sure path to mediocrity and stagnation.

“There is no doubt that action drives results,” writes Staver. “A plan doesn’t drive results, willpower doesn’t drive results, and not even goals drive results. Action drives results. Period.”

You pretend you don’t know what you actually know. Pretending is common in the workplace, says Staver. You pretend you don’t know about opportunities in order to avoid risk. You pretend you don’t know that high performer is behaving badly and making other employees unhappy. You pretend that your biggest client isn’t crushing morale and needs to be fired. Maybe, you even pretend you don’t know it’s time for you to move on.
“All of this pretending allows you to avoid pain and feel good in the short term, but it exacts a heavy price over time,” observes Staver. “There is always a price to be paid for needed actions not taken. Never doubt it. Your job as a leader is to look reality in the face and accept it so that you can make the tough decisions that need to be made.”
You fall victim to “shiny ball” syndrome. Can you relate to this scenario? You’re trying (well, sort of) to focus on a serious project when a “shiny ball” rolls by. It may be an email or a phone call or just a less urgent task. You break away and chase the shiny ball until—well, would you look at that! It’s time to go home already!

Most of us can’t say no to such distractions, says Staver. In fact, we don’t want to say no because what we should be focusing on is usually difficult, unpleasant, or anxiety producing. Anyone can stay busy. It takes real courage to stay focused and on task.
“I heard a shocking statistic recently: The average Sunday edition of the New York Times has more information in it than the average human being in the 1700s received during his entire lifetime,” says Staver. “If we can’t achieve focus and manage the deluge of information that comes at us every day, we’ll drown in the chaos. We’ll fail to do the important things. We’ll fail as leaders.”

You ignore what’s causing “weight and drag” in your company. You already know what this is, don’t you? Maybe it’s a policy, a person, or a scarcity mindset that’s holding you or your team back from optimal performance. Ask yourself now: What am I doing, or not doing, that is adding weight and drag? Am I refusing to make a decision, waiting to hire an assistant, delaying a hiring or firing issue?

“At the core of your job is your role as an obstacle remover,” says Staver. “Be courageous: Remove the obstacles you can and work around the ones that remain so that you can stay productive, directed, and focused.”

You refuse to balance your head and your gut. It takes both facts and intuition to analyze properly. Many leaders stick to the analysis style they’re most comfortable with. (Staver calls the data deciders “mullers” and gut deciders “gunslingers.”) To blend the scientific and artistic is simply too intimidating. (What if you make a mistake?)
Courageous leaders, on the other hand, understand that decisions that have a direct impact on people’s lives require both aspects of analysis—and that means most of us need to step outside our comfort zones when it’s time to make decisions.
“Your leadership will be enhanced, the performance of your team will improve, and they will likely trust you more if you lead with both your head and your gut,” writes Staver. “They are like two sides of the same coin.”

You hide behind the “I’m not quite ready” excuse. “Leaders and organizations spend too much time getting ready to be ready to get ready to almost get ready to be ready to get ready,” writes Staver. “Then they form a committee or a task force (which is just a committee on steroids) to evaluate more and look into the situation more so that they can really be ready.”

Getting overly ready is a result of fear, he insists. You don’t want to fail so instead you put off the moment of truth by perpetually getting ready. Should you prepare? Of course! Do your research? Yes. But stop hiding behind the “we aren’t quite ready” curtain. Say, “Enough is enough,” and just do it—even if conditions aren’t perfect.

“If you are going to build a culture in which people take action and aren’t afraid to boldly step out, then you had better be courageous enough to endure a lack of perfection and a dab of chaos,” says Staver. “Messy and quick is better than perfect and slow.”

You forsake the present in favor of the future or the past. It takes courage to be fully present, says Staver. It takes discipline to not ruminate on what happened yesterday, look at your iPhone, check your email, or think about tomorrow’s agenda instead of fully committing to and engaging in the present. Worry, anticipation, regret, and hope are some of the mental processes that rob us of fully and courageously experiencing our leadership and influence on a day-to-day basis.

“I am not suggesting you should not plan for the future,” Staver writes. “I am not suggesting that you ignore the past instead of learning from it. What I am suggesting is that all the planning and reflecting in the world provides no guarantees. If you decide to trade this moment for the memory of yesterday or the concern of tomorrow, you are likely to miss what’s happening now.”

You see only the information that agrees with your beliefs. We all have a natural tendency to ignore information that contradicts our beliefs about the world, especially our negative beliefs. If we believe someone doesn’t like us, we will see only those behaviors that support that impression. If we think we are bad at something, we will see only more evidence of that conclusion. This tendency is so strong that it blinds us to contrary evidence. As long as we don’t see other possibilities we don’t have to take action.

In Leadership Isn’t for Cowards, Staver writes about making a Facebook post encouraging leaders to act boldly. Someone responded by saying, “What if you work for an organization that talks the talk, but if you act on what they say you get your wings clipped and are passively told to go back to your desk and not make waves?”

“If I were able to talk directly with the guy who posted on my Facebook, I would ask him if it was 10 percent true that action was punished in his workplace,” he writes. “Were people who came up with new ideas punished? Were employees who came up with cheaper ways to do things or ways to increase efficiency punished? Probably not…Believing that is simply an excuse. Fear is the real problem, and it seems bigger the more you dwell on it.”

You’re constantly blaming others. This is an energy-draining, counterproductive way of dealing with difficult circumstances. Blaming someone else puts you in the position of a victim, like something happened outside your control. Therefore, you won’t take action to change your circumstances because it’s someone else’s problem. (How convenient, huh?) Victim thinking affects not just individuals but entire organizations, notes Staver.

“Blame-based leadership seeks to find a bad guy so that there is someone to absorb the problem, like a lightning rod absorbs a bolt of otherwise dangerous electricity,” he writes. “If a bad guy can be found, then everyone else can take a collective sigh of relief. For that particular problem, they are off the hook. If it’s marketing’s fault, then operations can’t possibly be responsible for the train wreck. If it’s operations’ fault, management can’t have done anything wrong.

“Acknowledging that you are ultimately responsible for the results of your life, thoughts, and actions creates a level of freedom not experienced by those who choose to blame others,” Staver adds. “It empowers you to act. Courageous leaders are driven by, even obsessed with, the imperative to eliminate excuse making and blame from themselves and their organizations.”

You apply more pressure instead of looking for pinch points. Imagine that you are trying to drink from a water hose that has a kink in it. What do you do? Do you un-kink the hose…or do you run up to the faucet and turn up the pressure? Obviously, you would do the former. Until you eliminate the kink—the pinch point—all the pressure in the world won’t do a bit of good. Water will just begin to leak from the weak spots, and if the pressure isn’t relieved, the hose will explode.

Now, think of this hose as an analogy for your company and the individuals who work in it. Consider a pinch point as anything that slows, impedes, or stops desirable results. It could be a process, a policy or procedure, a tradition, even a way of thinking. (Heck, maybe it’s you.) It is your job to seek out and eliminate pinch points—and just as important, to free your people to openly and clearly identify them as well.
“Too many leaders turn up the pressure in the hose when they need more output from their people,” says Staver. “They push employees harder or offer new programs, initiatives, and incentives to try to push them into compliance. Imagine how much more effective it would be to summon up your courage and address the pinch points that need addressing.”

You’re too harsh. Do you recognize the achievements of your employees? If you don’t—or if you don’t do it properly—you’ll be unable to motivate your team. If you find yourself withholding recognition until the goal is completely accomplished, guess what? You’re too harsh. If you say “good job” but then immediately shift your focus to the next goal, you’re too harsh. If you qualify your recognition or take a little back after you’ve given it, you’re too harsh.

The idea is to celebrate your employees’ accomplishments without compromising their momentum. That means acknowledging progress with full and complete focus on the success of what is right here, right now.

“Sometimes leaders fear that pouring on the recognition before the job is done will demotivate followers,” says Staver. “Other times, they’re uncomfortable with the intimacy and vulnerability it takes to sincerely thank an employee. Sometimes courage looks like trusting your employees; sometimes it looks like getting out of your comfort zone long enough to provide face-to-face recognition that people crave.”

You’re an over-recognizer. On the other end of the spectrum from the harsh leaders are those who are so ready to praise and encourage everybody for anything that their acknowledgment loses all effectiveness. This can take the form of gushing (recognizing so much and with such flair that it isn’t trustworthy or meaningful) or fake recognition (recognizing in a way that seems inconsistent with the rest of your behavior). Both forms come across as inauthentic and actually erode trust.

“If you’re an over-recognizer, ironically, your problem might be the same as the harsh leader who never recognizes: You fear the intimacy involved in having a heartfelt, honest conversation,” observes Staver. “Or maybe at the root of the behavior is a fear of the ‘confrontation’ involved in giving meaningful critical feedback. Regardless, you owe it to your followers to make your acknowledgments trustworthy.”

You reward effort rather than achievement. It’s a mistake to be too “soft” about expectations. It’s a mistake to say, “Just do your best.” People will not achieve just because you encourage and motivate them. Somebody must drive performance. Somebody must plant the flag on the hill and refuse to accept anything but success. That somebody is you. Courageous leaders lay out expected results in the most effective and humane way possible and are clear about the consequences of not meeting them.
“Bosses worry about upsetting their employees so they don’t set high expectations,” writes Staver. “I am in full support of a respectful workplace where people enjoy their jobs and look forward to coming to work, but I am also in full support of less whining and more doing, less passing the buck and more personal responsibility, less explaining why you didn’t and more showing how you did.”

You’re a helicopter leader. Accountability is a major buzzword for leaders. And it is important for leaders to keep people focused on what matters and performing in alignment with expectations. Unfortunately, some leaders think accountability means constantly standing over employees to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, in the way you think they should be doing it. This is not accountability, says Staver. It’s hovering. And yes, it’s yet another manifestation of fear.

“Helicopter leaders are afraid to let go because they believe the work won’t get done if they don’t oversee every detail,” says Staver. “Either this fear is unfounded or it’s a sign that employees really aren’t capable of doing the job they’re paid to do. The solution is simple: Do your job and let them do theirs, or get rid of incompetent employees and replace them with people who can get the job done.”

Your job, insists Staver, is to indentify the outcomes you expect and then to develop strategy. Your direct reports’ jobs are to commit to the results. You set the parameters, but remain flexible about how your people accomplish their tasks. Accountability, in most cases, is about making sure the results are achieved.

You solve problems for people. Problems and conflicts are a part of life. If you aren’t dealing with a problem, or eighty, you will have some show up very soon. Learning to solve these problems is a big part of leadership. And guess what? It’s also a big part of followership. Your employees will face problems of their own, and in the same way they need to figure out how to accomplish results, they need to find their own solutions.
“Do not solve all of your followers’ problems,” warns Staver. “Don’t even solve most. Remember that the more you are involved in solutions, the more likely it will be that your reports will depend on you. The more they depend on you, the more they will hesitate when solving problems. If they know you will come in and fix the problem, they will wait. They will also feel that you don’t have confidence in them.

“If you’re a parent this may sound hauntingly familiar,” he adds. “Many parents fear that their kids don’t have what it takes to handle life’s problems, so they step in and do it for them. Of course, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Manage your anxiety and have a little faith in others. Your employees will rise to the occasion and you’ll be a lot happier.”

Mental clutter is keeping you from noticing. The more you fear, the more you try to do. The more you try to do, the more you have to think about. You have more meetings. More calls to make. More emails to read and send. More commitments to obsess over. Once you can let go of some of the fear, you can turn down some of the activities and commitments. This will free up the time and space to do the things that inspire and invigorate you—that allow you to be fully present and quiet in the moment.

“Without those moments of peace and clarity, you will keep on rushing until you burn out, never realizing that you could have stopped, adjusted, and continued with less stress and greater success,” writes Staver. “These moments will be the times when you notice that your veteran sales rep needs you to back off a bit, or that your morning grumpiness is affecting everyone’s enthusiasm. These will be the moments that show you how to kindle your followers and inspire them to greater success. These moments will refresh your ability to notice the rest of your life.”

Ah yes…the rest of your life. When you think selfishly for a moment, you’ll realize this may be the best reason of all to confront your hidden fears and, ultimately, vanquish your inner coward.

“Fear-centered leadership wreaks havoc with your entire life,” says Staver. “The anxiety that comes from not doing what you know deep down needs to be done—and from managing the fallout from your poor decisions—drains the energy you could be spending on friends, family, and the outside interests that make life worth living.”

Mike Staver, author of Leadership Isn’t for Cowards, is a business coach and speaker with a rare ability to zero in on the fears that prevent leaders from doing what they need to do. He confronts them with the truths they’re pretending not to know and provides the “swift kick” they need to start making the quick decisions that get results—a necessity for survival in a global economy. 

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