Great Leaders Are Not Fearless

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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Ken was a mid-level manager with high-level ambitions. After receiving steady promotions at a media company, he had his eye on a corner office. So he was delighted when the "suits" on the 17th floor asked him to go on the road and make presentations about the company's financial prospects to securities analysts in New York.

The night before his big presentation, the experienced support staff, which had spent weeks preparing for the trip, asked him if he wanted to do a dry run. Ken brushed off the suggestion.

His big moment came the next morning, and it was a disaster. Ken couldn't operate the projector. He got lost in his notes. He struggled to answer the analysts' questions.

When the excruciating presentation was finally over, an enraged Ken stormed off the podium. He shot backstage toward his coworkers who huddled in silent embarrassment for him.

They were ready to offer encouragement and sympathy, until Ken spoke. "Whose fault is this?" he demanded acidly.

Everyone clustered backstage knew the answer to his question, but no one dared to say it. By immediately disclaiming responsibility for his own mistake, Ken demonstrated to his staff that he would throw every last one of them in front of a train if he thought he would benefit. Nice work for an executive of a company whose lofty "corporate value statement" included fairness, accountability, and teamwork.

No doubt, many wage slaves across the country have similar stories. Why have so many bosses gone bad? Perhaps because so many leaders misunderstand leadership.

Can you blame them? After its 2001 demise, Enron was widely pilloried for its "rank and yank" appraisal system, which regularly booted the 15% of employees tagged as the worst "performers." But it wasn't just Enron. In "Rank and Fire," Time magazine estimated that 20 percent of American companies—including some of the biggest names in business—used a similar system at the time. Many still do.

With so many hypercompetitive businesses around, and a business press that often exalts their über-arrogant leaders, it's no wonder that leadership is confused with fearlessness. But true leadership is about courage—taking action in the face of fears rather than pretending the fears don't exist.

The Psalms are replete with examples of David, sovereign king and one of the greatest generals of his age, pouring forth his fears to God. In Psalm 55, reeling from the betrayal of a close friend, David confesses, "Fear and trembling come upon me, and horror has overwhelmed me." He even considers running away! But he calls upon God and moves forward with reassurance, encouraging us to do the same: "Cast your burden upon the Lord, and He will sustain you."

Imagine what might have happened if Ken, the moment he went backstage, had erupted into laughter at his folly, apologizing for his blunder and praising his hard-working team. Rather than running for cover, his coworkers would likely have joined him in laughter, accepted the apologies, basked in his praise—and even commiserated with him. Talk about a "corporate value statement"!

Questions for Small Groups, Personal Reflection and Online Discussion:

What are you afraid of? Can you admit your own mistakes, or are you afraid of being "found out" as imperfect?

Can you praise colleagues' ideas, or are you afraid your own will be found lacking?

Can you take a risk on a person or a strategy, or does the fear of failure keep you tethered to the tried and true?