Issue 2.9 | April 2011

In this Article: how facts, foundations and friendship protect leaders from their fears.

by Jonathan Wilson

The candle sputtered and flickered in the silent black of a New Guinea night.  I lay in my sleeping bag, staring at the guttering flame in a state of utter depression.  I was days from any form of medical civilization, deep in the mountains of the Yali tribe in New Guinea where the only way to travel the rugged terrain was by foot and I was, as of the last few hours, a cripple.

I was here on a mission.  I had entered these remote valleys to teach in a number of villages; a message borne out of my love for the tribe and my concerns about its rapid and seemingly uncritical capitulation to external forces of change.  I was worried that the people of my childhood were letting go of self-determination in favour of quick material gain: understandable in the short term but damaging in the long run.  But now the mission was receding against the backdrop of the throbbing pain in my knee and the knowledge that any route to a remedy entailed days more trekking through landscape that would prove unforgiving to an injured leg.  I could think only of my own woes and the fears they stirred.  The next morning I woke up to sun streaming into the valley, but when my Yali friend, Hohobo, asked me what was wrong, I used a Yali expression, “my heart is in the mud.”

Leaders often face fears, and sometimes these fears hit us with the force of a locomotive, derailing us, paralyzing us or setting us on a course of reaction rather than pro-action.  We can fear the failure of a new business model or process or product.  We can fear the reaction of powerful stakeholders to our principled stand.  We can fear the volatility of markets or the loss of a significant customer.  Whatever threatens our well-being, whatever is unpredictable or can’t be controlled, such a thing is very likely to generate fear.

Fear hinders effective leadership.  Fear is typically irrational.  It is that dark prison that lacks the light of information.  What we don’t know or can’t see, we fear.  In response, we fill in the information gap with speculation.  Fear-based speculation often drives us to ill-judged and ill-informed decisions.  Consider, for example, the recently implemented body-scanning measures at US borders and customs.  US law enforcement agencies could have been avoided the harassment of travellers and the exorbitant costs (passed onto the US taxpayer) had they taken the time to study the superior strategies of a country that has been dealing with identical security threats for decades: Israel.  If it doesn’t drive us to react, then fear often leads us to denial: think Bear Stearns.  Worse still, fear feeds on fear, and can drive us further into destructive thoughts and behaviours.

Finding Solid Ground

Where should a leader go when he or she is afraid?  I suggest three places: facts, foundations and friends.

Fear distorts perspective.  When we are gripped by fear, perspective has to come from elsewhere, from a trusted source of facts.  On a personal level, it might be your most objective friends or a coach.  On a corporate level it might be an industry analyst who is not paid by the industry for their advice.  Facts may trigger an alarm, or highlight a concern, but neither alarm nor concern constitutes fear.  Alarm is the neurological mechanism that triggers when the finger brushes the hot stovetop, stimulating the body to avoid harm.  Concern is the realistic assessment of circumstances and the acknowledgement of very real negative consequences.  Both are critical components of effective living, let alone organizational leadership.

Winston Churchill is noted for his stirring speech to Britain in which he promised to fight Hitler’s armies on land, sea and in the air “until we have rid the earth of his shadow.”  Less known is his commitment to the unvarnished truth about just how difficult this was going to be.  He set up the Statistical Office whose job was to provide him with a constant and updated stream of unfiltered information on the conflict, which, at the time of his speech, was in its darkest hour.  Churchill stated that he “had no need for cheering dreams … Facts are better than dreams.”

At the end of the day, however, facts can run out, overwhelm or fail.  Long before you exhaust objective information and advice, a pre-emptive strike against fear is to ensure you have solid foundations: convictions about what absolutely matters, and why.  Convictions arise out of the past, not the present or the future.  They are anchored in ancient wisdom, not in novel experimentation or in insufficiently evaluated raw data.  Africans, Asians and others honour elders more than Westerners do because, among other things, the elders are closer to the past, closer to history, closer to things tested and proven.

Fear finds a firm battlement when our friends stand with us, particularly when the threat is to our well-being.  In my distorted misery in that remote Yali village, I did not account for friendship.  On bearing my soul to Hohobo, the response I got was “Jonathan, what we’re doing is important and good.  And we’re with you.  We’ll help you on the trail.  We’ll see this through together.”  In fear I had failed to account for the obvious.  For in Hoboho and my other companions I had friendship, facts and foundations.  We completed the teaching tour.  To do so, my companions kept up my morale and assisted me wherever the trail was difficult or dangerous.  Two villages along we located a two-way radio and were, in short order, helicoptered to help.

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