The Fear Factor

failure fear matt green May 27, 2021

Robert Greene, in his book, The 48 Laws of Power, recounts an incident when a heckler interrupted Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev in the middle of a speech in which Khrushchev was criticizing his predecessor, Joseph Stalin, for his crimes.

“You were a colleague of Stalin’s,” the heckler yelled. “Why didn’t you stop him then?”

Khrushchev apparently could not see the heckler and shouted, “Who said that?” No hand went up, and after a few seconds of tense silence, Khrushchev said quietly, “Now you know why I didn’t stop him.”

One misunderstanding people have of leadership is that it attracts the best, brightest, strongest, and most capable of us. How else would someone rise to the level of leader and be rewarded with a position of honor and responsibility?

Of course, this is not the case, and the motivations that animate even the best of us are tainted with the most respectable of vices: fear. Typically, this particular dysfunction does not begin with a desire to inspire fear in others but to suppress fear in ourselves.

We fear losing control and grip the wheel more tightly. We fear disrespect and begin demanding it rather than earning it. We fear an unknown future and seek to eliminate all risk of failure, to the detriment of innovation and creativity.

If unchecked, fear will eventually become the primary currency we traffic in to accomplish our goals. After all, if fear didn’t work in the short term, we wouldn’t use it. But like a drug, it loses efficacy over time, and it repels those who are healthy enough to see it for what it is.

Not surprisingly, fear is highly contagious and will infect those we lead. Eventually, our leadership attracts those for whom fear is also the preferred currency, and they perpetuate it, embedding it into the culture of the organizations and teams over which we’ve been given stewardship.

I used to think fear-based leadership was entirely a characteristic of narcissists and bullies … until I began to see its telltale signs in myself. An aversion to necessary risk. An obsession with security and predictability. An avoidance of critical feedback. If unchecked, these seemingly innocuous manifestations can explode into more overt expressions of abuse, manipulation, and ethical compromise.

The Psalmist’s remedy for fear is not found in increased control, but in release. “When I am afraid,” he writes, “I put my trust in You” (Psalm 56:3). Wise leaders are those with a firm awareness of both their own limitations and God’s limitless capabilities.

Unlike the terrified heckler in Khrushchev’s crowd, they can say with the Psalmist, “In God, I trust and am not afraid. What can mere mortals do to me?” (v. 4)


This article was extracted from Issue 5 (Spring 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.

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