Leading from a Place of Fear

The only way to lose your team, is to fear losing them

Photo by Jose A.Thompson

Leadership is terrifying. Of course it is, anyone who says otherwise is lying to you or to themselves. It doesn’t matter if you are responsible for a team of five or five hundred, they are all depending on you to make decisions that could not only affect their livelihood, but also the environment where they spend the majority of their time. Not only that, you have your own leaders expecting specific results often with limited interest in how those results are achieved. So what are you to do?

This is where our leaders often break down. They are faced with an impossible choice. Prioritize your team members and team culture and ensure they are happy and engaged, even at the cost insurmountable goals. Or ensure that results are driven and achieved for your leadership team no matter the toll it takes on your team members. Yet this is only an impossible choice if you lead out of a place of fear. Often our leaders are so fearful of losing their own precarious positions, they seek to control their teams through the power they have been granted in the organization.

This isn’t necessarily their fault, it’s a work place culture issue that is prevalent in the majority of companies. I would hazard a guess that every single person that reads this has at least experienced this environment, if they are not currently working in one.

It’s not a bad thing to be afraid. You should be, if you squash your fear it means you stop caring. Those are real people looking to you to lead them into the future, and your own future depends on performing to the expectations of your own leaders. You should be scared. The danger comes when you allow this fear to control your decisions and therefor controlling your team. The first step is to admit that you don’t have any control.

People have more options than ever in the modern workplace. You’ll find very few young professionals that have been with the same company more than a few years. This is because they have a plethora of employment options at their fingertips, if they are even reasonably skilled and educated. No longer are they looking for ‘a job’, they are looking for a purpose. They are looking for teams that inspire them and leaders that they can trust.

Trust is one of the most important currencies you can establish with your teams, it is the easiest to lose, and the hardest to gain back. Once you break trust with a team member, you just guaranteed their indifference and their eventual departure. I have seen this so many times and the disastrous effect it has on teams. Leaders are so fearful of their their team members leaving or having to compete for their attention, they seek to control that attention and not give them other options. Somehow in the back of a leaders mind, you are always wondering who is going to steal them away.

I can’t speak from experience, but I can only guess this is what it feels like to be in an emotionally abusive relationship. If we are continually worrying about someone else stealing our teams members, we are not spending time thinking and providing for their needs and desires. See the catch-22 here?

If we spend our energy worrying if they will leave, they will be easy targets for whoever comes along and provides those needs and desires. We just encouraged them to leave simply be fearing that they would and acting (or not acting) on that fear. As human beings we make decisions based on self-interest. That’s not to say we are selfish, but we are driven by self-preservation. Even those who seem to always be concerned with others, whether consciously or not, they are making those decisions because inherently they see the importance of social currency and community to survival.

All this to say that if a team member leaves, that decision has nothing to do with them or the team they are leaving you for. It’s completely on us as leaders. We gave them reason to leave, whether by failing to provide for their needs or most likely because we broke their trust. We showed them through our actions and our words that we were more concerned with our own survival and the benefit of the organization than their own.

You don’t have to be brave to be a leader. Some of the most successful leaders are those who recognize their fear, embrace it, and give up control. They realize their teams are choosing to be with them so they can venture into the future together. The only way to lose them, is to show them they don’t have our trust.