Organizational fear and the importance of leadership

My wife, who’s working on her MBA, is currently wading through a class that focuses on leadership. Last night she observed that “there sure are a lot of people out there developing theories on leadership, aren’t there?”

Well, yes, and for good reason. Most of those people are working to provide hooks for consulting practices, which can be pretty marketable. Why? Every company needs strong leaders. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that very few companies, if any, have as much in the way of leadership skills as they would like. Even if they have strong leadership at the top, you need leadership at all levels of the organization in order to be truly effective, and every business I’ve ever encountered had at least a little room for improvement. (Lest I be accused of excusing myself here, I’m including my own previous businesses in this.) Since it’s hard to find great leaders, many organizations work to cultivate better leadership skills among their existing employee bases, and that’s where consultants with leadership theories come in.

Are Leaders Made or Born?

The problem, of course, is that leadership is hard. For starters, let’s understand that leadership and management aren’t the same thing. We’re not going to delve deeply into the characteristics of leadership here, but we will observe (and pardon my oversimplification) that it generally thrives on vision and the ability to motivate people, whereas management has more to do with making the trains run on time. If you have somebody who embodies all of these capabilities, that’s something special.

Let’s also note that leadership is a function of multiple characteristics, and it’s possible to have some but not others. For example, a CEO may have so much charisma that people will follow him off a cliff, and so little vision that off a cliff is exactly where he leads them. As a result, it’s possible to develop leadership skills without necessarily producing a full-spectrum leader.

I’ve had the misfortune of dealing with some bad leaders in the past, so when it comes to organizational and leadership issues I should acknowledge that I have my cynical moments. Which is why I concluded by telling my wife that when push comes to shove, real leaders are a rare commodity.

Leadership and the Fear Problem

All this is leading back around to my post from last week, where I explained why fear is an organization killer. One of my colleagues liked the piece, but said “what you need to do now is explain how they can fix the problem.” Great advice, that.

So I thought for awhile about what I might say, and many suggestions presented themselves. Plenty has been written about the value of promoting healthy internal communication, for instance. Plenty more has been written about empowering employees and capturing their ideas. There are structural measures (breaking down the hierarchy and promoting genuine teamwork among equals). Much can be done on the cultural front. And of course, there’s always Jim Collins’s edict about getting the right people on the bus. All of these areas offer promise for those interested in creating an atmosphere of professional investment in their businesses.

But the more I flailed away at the tactics, the more I realized that there’s only one real answer, and it has to do with … you guessed it … leadership. In a nutshell, fear in an organization, or the lack of it, is a result of the personality and will of those calling the shots. In a smaller company this may be one person, and larger environments may have evolved a collective culture that’s larger than any one person. In either case, if leadership is committed to fully engaged employees, then whatever tactics are employed will likely meet with some success. If leadership is okay with a culture of fear, on the other hand, then all the great empowerment programs in the world are going to fail.

Put another way, trying to develop a list of “things you can do” to combat fear in an organization is like articulating individual leadership skills – here is a specific leaderlike thing that you can do, etc. But in the end, driving the fear out of an organization and replacing it with a culture of engagement won’t result from leadership skills or tactics or programs. It will only occur as a manifestation of true, full-on leadership.

I wish I had an easier answer for you, but I don’t.

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