A Leader’s Guide to Bad Fear, Good Fear
and No Fear
The Idea in a Nutshell
Fearless leaders are much discussed and admired. Fear itself, though, is an often-overlooked factor in business success or failure.
Not talking about fear is understandable. But it’s a mistake. Fear affects major areas such as strategy-setting, execution, innovation and organizational change.
Fear is so important that it’s better to acknowledge it and manage it.
Kodak were so scared of cannibalising their own film business that, despite inventing the digital camera, they failed to commercialise it, and went out of business. Fujifilm avoided the trap and made the leap.
Volkswagen were more frightened of the threat to their US diesel strategy than of breaking the law. The cost? $30 Bn and a former CEO who can’t go anywhere he might get extradited to the US.
Elon Musk has blazed trails apparently fearlessly, but is he going to overdo it?
Leaders should ask, “What fear is appropriate and what fear is not? When should we be fearless? When is fearlessness actually dangerous, even stupid? “
And, “How do we transform inappropriate fear into prudence and power?”
The Idea in Practice
1. Strategists, know thy fears. Most people are more motivated by a fear of loss than the promise of a gain. This can seriously distort your team’s strategic decisions unless you bring these factors to awareness.
2. Take Fearlessness to the Red-line, But Not Beyond. The great wealth creators make bold moves, but they know where the limit is. Branson does, Musk might, Kalanick didn’t.
3. Understand Real Fears and Real Incentives. If your people are not following through on strategic decisions, assume that inaction makes good sense from where they’re sitting.
4. Mind Your Language: Stop Talking About ‘Failing Fast’. They’ll hear the word ‘fail’ and run a mile. Instead, like GE and Intuit, make it clear that the idea is to succeed without wasting too much time on dead ends.
5. Distinguish Urgency from Panic. If you build a Burning Platform, don’t expect coordinated action in response. But do expect your best talent to jump first.
6. Bring Denial into the Light of Day. People who get disrupted often disregard or dismiss new threats. Think of Microsoft’s Balmer when he saw the iPhone, or the UK and US car industries when the Japanese started to compete with them. They should have been a lot more frightened than they were!
7. Get the Messenger a Bulletproof Vest! Or don’t shoot them in the first place (Google the phrase ‘whisteblower Oxfam’ or ‘Whistleblower bank’ for graphic accounts of the risks).
8. Fearlessly Uphold Your Values. Some people will beat their numbers but ruin your organization in the process. Don’t let them.
9. Reduce Moral Hazard: ensure People Have Skin in The Game. Moral Hazard invites a deadly form of arrogance. Learn from the Russian Colonel who made an engineer test the spaceship.
10. Make Sure People Fear the Right Things. People often prioritise competing fears badly. For example, are your sales people more worried about making their quota than saddling you will unprofitable business?