Monday, May 12, 2008

Fear--No Way to Live or Lead

Have you ever run into someone who is afraid they are going to lose their job? Or who is afraid of failure? Or who is just plain risk averse (which in my mind is another way to describe fear)? Are they usually successful? In my experience they are generally not successful or at least not as successful as they could be.

Leaders must understand risk and be able to accept risk. There are courses in risk management--but the important thing is that there is always risk. Everything we do comes with inherent risks. Driving to work in the morning has risk. If leaders are unwilling to accept risk, then they will be ineffective. Someone who is so afraid of losing their job that they refuse to take risks--will lose their job because they are ineffective. Think about it.

I have heard it said that caution and careful planning are essential. But I recently became aware of a bit of historical information that indicated that the Commanding General of the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War Battle of Antietam in September of 1862, General George B. McClellan, was so cautious and methodical that he missed the opportunity to soundly defeat General Robert E. Lee's outnumbered Army of Northern Virginia and end the war in 1862. As we know, the war continued for three more bloody years.

Leaders must be able to adapt to the situation and be willing to accept the risk of failure in order to be successful. I have a phrase I use to describe this approach:

High risk equals high reward!

Leaders who are unwilling to accept risk must be satisfied with mediocre performance from their teams, their organizations, and themselves.

One of the worst leadership practices I have observed related to risk is what I call: "Evaluating the Pain Factor." For each idea, the merit of the idea is determined by deciding how much pain will be caused by implementing the idea. A survey (usually informal) is accomplished of those affected by the concept and if the pain factor is too high, the idea is not be adopted regardless of the inherent merit of the idea. Why? Fear, plain and simple fear of upsetting the "apple cart" too much. How do you assess the pain factor anyway? Leaders who employ the "Pain Factor" as to assess ideas let the status quo determine their future because of fear of failure or upsetting too many people.

Living in fear of failure is not healthy. Organizations need to reward risk takers and realize that it is the risk takers who propel organizations and teams forward. As leaders, we need to ensure that we do not stifle creativity by becoming risk averse. Reward the risk takers--even when they fail because that is where the ability of the team or organization to adapt to the changing environment is going to come from.

Leader must set the vision for the team or the organization. Realize there will be risks to fully achieving the objective and either accept the risks or manage them by minimizing their effect. Evaluate ideas on their merit towards achieving the ultimate organizational goal and not through the pain factor. Reward the risk takers and encourage the risk averse to accept risk as a means success.

Living or leading out of fear is paralyzing and will only result in failure. Live free from the fear of failure and embrace failures as learning tools and as stepping stones to success.

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