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Building Leadership Sustainability – Without Fear!

By Bill Sex, President and CEO of New England Coaching 

Why is fear such a significant factor in the way some people lead business? Does it achieve sustainable results and who is it really about? To assess another way, let’s consider the characteristics of leadership that are generally least admired. Words like intimidating, dictating, detached, egotistical, controlling, humiliating, degrading, and uninformed quickly come to mind. The underlying environment under which these behaviors prevail is actually one of fear and this continues to attack the very spirit of people and organizations into the 21 st century.

Fear is an unpleasant feeling of perceived risk or danger, real or not. The key words in this definition are "perceived" and "real or not." Fear is very much a factor of one’s own perception and individuality; as such leaders are often unable to recognize within themselves the fact that they scare people. A look, a word, or even silence from a boss is sometimes all it takes.

So what does your work environment look like? Do your employees fear you? How could they? Do you think they’d know the "blank" in the following?

  • Give them an inch and they’ll take a …………..
  • Cover your …………
  • It’s the boss’s way or the ……………..
  • We’re not paying you to …………..
  • If you can’t do the job, there’s ………………. out there who can.

If your employees can easily answer these on the basis of their experience with you, you are most likely leading from a place of fear.

Strangely for some leaders, being told that employees fear them can be a source of great consolation and even gratification. In the fear-based environment things can be demanded and done, questions are not asked (therefore leadership not challenged), and everything appears to be running smoothly. Sounds pretty darn good, but is it really?

Let’s peel back a few layers of this onion and see what’s actually going on behind the scenes. Ask yourself the following questions regarding the possible behaviors and actions of your employees:

  • Would they be forthcoming with ideas for improvement?
  • Are they committed to the success of the business?
  • During a downturn are they likely to support turnaround initiatives or create further difficulties?
  • Are they going to do just what’s expected and no more?
  • Are they going to be change agents?
  • Does it feel like you have to watch them closely?
  • Is turnover, absenteeism, and tardiness a problem with them?

The trade union movement throughout the world has its roots in being a counter to leadership’s desire to instill fear. Collectivism was the only course that a group of people could adopt to stand up to the "mighty leader" who is motivated by power, ego, control, and greed. Max De Pree, in "Leadership is an Art," talks of deterioration of a business due to "leaders who seek to control rather than to liberate."

The strange thing about fear within leadership is that it very often follows the same pattern as the abused becoming the abuser. They were afraid of their boss and have become conditioned to operating this way; it is all they know. In some respects it’s not their fault. That is, unless they don’t have the courage to change their ways once they understand why it’s wrong.

The key thing about fear is that it holds no sustainability. Those who operate from this place are eventually found wanting. By operating primarily from this place there is an absence of real motivation, inspiration, vision, adaptability, creativity, planning, and the list goes on. Fear actually compromises your business in the long run.

So what’s the call to action? First, you must recognize and accept that this might be where you are (just like at the first AA meeting) and accept it. Fear-based leadership is rectifiable but this type of behavioral change takes courage and is not a "slam dunk." As you embark upon this journey, whether through training, coaching, and/or reading, you will see a pattern emerge. Soon you will begin to realize that what’s expected of you is to show, as Jack Welch put it, "when you are a leader, success is all about growing others." If you act out these words then you will have respect, not fear, and you will have crossed the divide. You will be better off and so will all the stakeholders in your business.

"Be the change you wish to see." —Ghandi

In collaboration with the MassMEP, New England Coaching offers a Leadership Transformation Program that teaches leaders to master the required skills that allow them to move beyond a fear based environment and become exceptional leaders. Sign up now for our upcoming program on Feb 15, 2023.

Bill Sex is President / CEO of New England Coaching and works with business leadership to help move them to the next level, personally and professionally. For more information go to and then call Bill at 508-84-5656 or e-mail [email protected].


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