As iconic horror writer H.P. Lovecraft said, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” But here’s the harsh truth: No matter how much you plan, no matter how many rules you put in place, no matter how much risk you avoid, you’ll never control all the circumstances that influence your business. Never. And if you can’t learn to coexist peacefully with that truth, says Dan Prosser, you’ll never live up to your full potential as a leader.
“Too many leaders live in fear of the unknown and of uncontrollable events in their business,” says Prosser, author of THIRTEENERS: Why Only 13 Percent of Companies Successfully Execute Their Strategy—and How Yours Can Be One of Them. “The consequences can be devastating. There’s no faster way to turn good employees into cynical and nonproductive ones than to stress them out through your efforts to control the possibility of failure.”
Fear spreads quickly from leaders to employees, Prosser notes. It stifles individuals and groups, prevents productive risk-taking, and turns engaged innovators into disconnected clock-punchers. Ultimately, the harmful side effects of fear prevent your company from effectively executing its strategy.
“The future of your business exists only in your declaration,” says Prosser. “You must declare for something that doesn’t exist yet. Leading by fear is the antithesis of that. Fear holds you in place. You can’t declare for great outcomes because you’re afraid to take the actions necessary to achieve them. To shut down the fear factory inside your company, you have to gather your courage and take a close look at what fears are dominating the way you lead.”
Here are five behaviors that indicate you are a fear-driven leader:
1. You value “not failing” above all else. As Prosser writes in THIRTEENERS, 87 percent of all companies with a strategic plan will fail to execute it. That’s because those companies are pursuing the simplest yet most damaging strategy: the strategy to avoid failure.
“You might ask, ‘Are you saying my strategy causes failure because I’m focused on making sure I don’t fail?’” Prosser comments. “Yes, that’s exactly what I’m saying! Most people are invested in not failing, and they’ve taught all their employees to value that execution model over taking the kind of risks that have the potential to pay off. Everyone’s doing it, and it’s costing your company on a grand scale.”
2. You cling to old strategies simply because they’re familiar. Many companies that fail often appear to be operating under full sail. Prosser says, “Yes, there’s lots of action happening in these organizations, but it’s usually the wrong kind of action.” It’s what earned success in years gone by. Leaders at these organizations think that if a strategy has worked before then it’s got to work again—and that more of the same can only be better. They go out of their way to convince themselves that the old strategy is working—especially when it isn’t.
“The difference between a rut and a grave is only about five and a half feet,” Prosser points out. “Instead of digging themselves out of the rut they’re in, leaders who cling to old strategies end up just digging themselves in deeper when change occurs in the marketplace. Suddenly, they realize the competition has caught up or customers are starting to disappear.”
3. You assume you (and you alone) “should” have all the answers. Fearful leaders often operate like lone wolves. They have to do everything themselves to feel confident it’ll be done correctly, and they resist considering (much less relying on) the opinions and recommendations of others.
“This is like taking a test from memory when you have the option to use not just the textbook, but the whole library,” Prosser comments. “You’ll never know how talented your employees are if you think you have to have all the answers. Why not partner with your people to generate radical and revolutionary innovations for the future—a future that does not represent your fears of repeating the past? Let go of how you think it has to be and trust the process, allowing others to contribute ideas and get connected to your vision.”
4. Your knee-jerk reaction to chaos is to do something—anything. Whether you’ve just learned of an unexpected drop in quarterly earnings, gotten bad news from a client, or had a promising deal fall through, you’ve no doubt been faced with chaos, disorder, or confusion. Prosser wants to know: Did you remain calm and thoroughly assess the situation, or did you panic, rush to judgment, and act without thinking?
“When you’re faced with unexpected chaos or anxiety (especially anxiety that implies you’re not equal to the challenge at hand), it’s easy to think, I need to do something right now,” he acknowledges. “And so you lay off employees, switch to a new strategy, pull a product off the market, or make some other move that makes you feel better in the short run that you did, well, something. But knee-jerk reactions made out of fear can have a long-lasting negative impact on your organization.”
5. You find yourself constantly addressing symptoms rather than searching for root causes. When disruptive issues pop up in the workplace, the first thing we want to do is—naturally—snuff them out as fast as we can. Often, that’s because we fear not just the consequences of the disruption, but also damage that might occur to our own reputations.
“However, treating only the symptoms rarely works,” Prosser says. “Most of the time, it just temporarily masks the real problem, which continues to damage workplace performance. As long as you’re addressing only the symptoms and allowing core issues to remain, similar problems will just show up somewhere else, and you will go through the same exercise of pulling people in and talking through the problem (actually the symptoms) again and again and again.”
“If any of these behaviors seem familiar, fear may be holding you—and by extension, your organization—back from executing your strategy,” Prosser concludes. “Only by becoming aware of your automatic thought pattern about the circumstances you face (that you can’t do anything about) and by becoming unattached to the outcomes will you be able to get yourself, first, and then your company, out of its rut, get your people engaged and connected, and move ahead.
“Becoming a successful top 13 percent company takes a leader with a high level of desire and a fearless willingness to lose everything (i.e., no attachment to a particular outcome) to produce breakthrough results,” he adds. “That requires changing one’s perspective, modifying one’s own thinking and behavior, and conquering well-entrenched beliefs and habits. Don’t make the mistake of believing that just because you’ve earned a leadership position you’ve finished working on yourself.” SVBS
Dan Prosser is author of THIRTEENERS: Why Only 13 Percent of Companies Successfully Execute Their Strategy—and How Yours Can Be One of Them. As CEO of The Prosser Group and BreakthroughSchool.com, he has over 45 years’ experience building his own companies, while for the past 13 years, he has been speaking; teaching; mentoring; and coaching business leaders, and entrepreneurs.