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This is what fear in leadership looks like

Don’t be that leader

I’ve had some real jerks for bosses in the course of my career. From what I hear talking to other people about their experiences of leadership and management, this is not uncommon.

There are plenty of unpleasant people out there who make it to the top.

But that bad behaviour is not always down to someone simply being an ignorant boatface. A lot of that behaviour comes from fear.

Fear of being found out a fraud, fear of being in over your head, fear of failure.

This may seem counterintuitive- how can such a mean-spirited, harsh $%#&* be afraid of anything? Isn’t he or she just an inconsiderate, power-hungry pain in the neck?

Could be, but often that behaviour is just covering up a panic that a leader is having because they are hanging on by a toenail and they know it could all go horribly wrong if they are found out. It’s just one manifestation of the fight or flight reflex. These leaders lash out because they feel threatened. They have to puff up and make themselves feel bigger so they don’t crumple and run.

This is what fear looks like in leadership

Lack of a vision, or refusal to make the vision clear to the team: A leader who is in over their head, or who doesn’t have the skills or experience they should in order to lead effectively, will not be able to clearly articulate their vision for the team. Or they will not have the confidence to state that vision out loud, share it with their team, and allow that team to contribute, challenge, or improve on the vision.

This can also include simple things like short and long term goals, a mission statement, and other motivational signposts that get a team working together and rowing in the same direction. This manifestation of fear leaves a team feeling directionless. People are confused when it comes to trying to set priorities and making work plans. And it undermines any chances of developing any level of commitment to the team or even the company.

Lack of transparency/obfuscation: A leader who lacks confidence or has failed to build trust amongst their team will withhold information, complicate matters unnecessarily, and otherwise make opaque their decision-making and plans. They will keep useful and even important background knowledge or details hidden. They think knowledge is power, and if they keep it to themselves they have leverage. They are afraid of being judged as incompetent or a poor leader, and don’t have the belief in themselves or their abilities to be open with their team. This is a manifestation of fear of being “found out”, of being seen as a fraud or not fit for the job as the leader.

Talking at the team, not with them: This behaviour is often part of the cover up described above. Team members are not engaged to be part of discussions that make up essential thinking and planning for the team’s work. This leader is often known for a waffling, meandering style of talking at people in meetings. They don’t ask meaningful questions or ask for a response to get a range of views. If you have ever sat squirming through what felt like hours of blather trying desperately not to roll your eyes as your boss droned on, you have seen this fearful leader in action.

Not setting out values or standards of behaviour: The best leaders epitomise the values of the team and lead by example when it comes to behaviours. They don’t have to devise a list and stick them up on the wall. They will make it clear from the way they conduct themselves and how they relate to their team members and other colleagues exactly what is expected and acceptable behaviour within the team. These will include characteristics like acting with integrity, being honest and transparent, and being humble. Fearful leaders will display a lack of values, either through a lack of conviction to high standards, or through behaviour that shows that they just don’t consider them important. Or worse, that they haven’t given them any thought at all.

Blaming failures or lack of progress on external forces: A leader who is afraid of being found out as a fraud or unable to do their job well will often make excuses as to why things aren’t going well for the team. If performance is low they will find all manner of reasons, apart from their own ineffective leadership, as to why the team is not delivering.

They may talk badly about upper management, or their own boss if they have one. They will talk about bad clients or suppliers. They may trash talk their own team, even about some members to their peers. They will not step up and take responsibility for improving the team’s performance. This leader doesn’t know how to deal with poor performance, and is afraid their team will cotton on, so they have an excuse for everything.

Offloads on their team and makes them take the blame: Good leaders give credit for success to the team, and carry the can when things go wrong. A fearful leader does the opposite. They will soak up the accolades when things are going well. And everyone but themselves will be at fault if there is a disaster.

This is fearful leadership that undermines teams, makes building loyalty and trust impossible, and sets the team up for continued failures and problems. A team who believes their leader has their back will be better performers, take reasonable, calculated risk that is often key to taking the team’s work forward, will return the favour when a leader needs them most.

Recognise the signs of fear either in yourself as a leader or in the person who is leading you. Take action!

If you are the leader, do the work to understand your fear. If you feel incompetent, in over your head, or lacking the traits to be a good leader, do something about it. Get a coach or a mentor, take some leadership courses, read some of the thousands of well-proven leadership and management books out there that people have been relying on for decades. Show some humility and ask for help. Step up for your team or get out.

If your boss is a fearful leader, ask yourself what you can do to support them. Many fearful bosses do come across as pompous jerks- but many are good people who could just use a team’s vote of confidence and a few nudges in the right direction to regain the confidence needed to be great leaders.

A whole team can make or break a leader. And a fearful leader can break a team. Don’t be that leader.


My first book, Becoming a Fearless Leader: A simple guide to taking control and building happy, productive, highly-performing teams is out now. You can find access to a free pdf workbook that accompanies it on my website. If you do read my book, I would love to hear your comments.


I write about how I became the founder of a tech startup as a non-techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience, and all I am learning along the way. You can see more here. If you think this might be helpful for others on their entrepreneurial journey, please recommend and share.

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