The Japanese have a well-known saying - 案ずるより産むが易し, or “Giving birth to a baby is easier than worrying about it”. The Buddha felt similarly, offering “The whole secret of existence is to have no fear”. What role does fear play in leadership? Given we all at times experience fear, doubt and anxiety, are we precluded then from developing into successful leaders?
In Suo’s Shall We Dance, both Mr. Sugiyama, Mai and Mr Aoki are paralysed by fear. The fear of judgment, exposure and arguably, their own success. Sugiyama’s yearning reaches a tipping point such that he cannot but get off the train and move into the unknown. These initial steps liberate not only his own fears, but those of his friends and family. Both his own and the lives around him are transformed by his courage. By deeds, not words, he shows others that despite his fear, he is able to change tracks. The overwhelming theme explored by the movie is the restorative powers of vulnerability and of letting go (Brown, 2010).
Fear is a very real phenomenon. The brain mechanism responsible for its creation is unconscious and automatic (LeDoux, 1996), similar to our heartbeat, for example (Rosen & Schulkin, 1998). Fear therefore affects us all – leaders too. Heifetz (1994) maintains that leadership is about mobilising people to face challenges, the uncertainty around which almost certainly involves fear (Larsen, Øgaard, & Marnburg, 2005). The role of fear in leadership then is as a catalyst. Focus on the problem and take action, or focus on the fear and freeze (Witte, 1992).
To experience the emotion of fear is a natural and inevitable consequence of being a human being. Leadership is inextricably linked with meeting, experiencing and taking action in the face of fear. The key it seems is the decision made subsequent to feeling the fear. Sugiyama had many reasons to be frozen by fear; social, cultural and emotional. Despite this, he took action and allowed himself to be vulnerable, building strong trust and deep empathy in those around him as a consequence (Bunker, 1997). If leaders allow fear to dictate a state of inaction or indecision, the consequences are pervasive not only for themselves, but for those around them – those they may wish to inspire into action.
Brown, B. (2010, June). The Power of Vulnerability (video webcast). Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/brene_brown_on_vulnerability.html
Bunker, K. A. (1997). The power of vulnerability in contemporary leadership. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 49 (2), 122–136.
Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.
Larsen, S., Øgaard, T., & Marnburg, E. (2005). Worries in restaurant managers. Scandinavian Journal of Psychology, 46(1), 91–96
LeDoux, J. (1996). The emotional brain. The mysterious underpinnings of emotional life. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
Rosen, J. B., & Schulkin, J. (1998). From normal fear to pathological anxiety. Psychological Review, 105(2), 325–350.
Witte, K. (1992). Putting the fear back into fear appeals: The extended parallel process model. Communication Monographs, 59(4), 329–349.
In 1971, Ford executives researched the cost of fixing the now infamous Pinto with the estimated lawsuit settlements from customer injury claims. They favoured the former, and over 900 people subsequently died in Pinto explosions (Birsch & Fielder, 1994). The company just announced its best ever quarterly profit.
In July 2015, BP PLC agreed to pay $18.7 billion (claimable as a business expense) for spilling 11 million litres of oil into the ocean (Keller, 2015). One year after the disaster, corporate profits grew by over $28 billion. In 2012, pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline admitted to bribery, falsifying evidence and deceitful behaviour. They paid a fine of $3 billion. Profits from the misrepresented drugs amounted to more than $28 billion (Whalen, Barrett & Loftus, 2012).
In A Decisive Decade, Robert McKersie details the aggressive and deceptive tactics of the Motorola Corporation, which used its power and influence to discredit, bully and manipulate individuals in order to protect its public image and profits. Reprehensible behaviour, yet Motorola continue to thrive to this day. America’s most prolific serial killer was convicted of murdering 48 people and is serving 48 life sentences. The Ford Motor Company knowingly allows, budgets for - the deaths of 900 customers, and remains an American icon to this day. Why?
A corporation is created, managed and directed by human beings. Its leadership makes decisions which affect the lives of millions of people. Yet, corporations are not subject to the severity of punishment individuals are exposed to. This allows greed, corruption and enormous harm to come to members of the public. Moreover, it sponsors an environment in which leaders are able to conceal their toxic and destructive behaviours (Lipman-Blumen, 2005) and in many cases, be rewarded for them (Kellerman, 2004).
The enforcement response is limited to civil sanctions for what in most cases are criminal actions of corporations. This invites deep questions of the notions of justice, transparency and fairness. Given corporations continue to grow in influence, power and revenue, the situation is sadly, unlikely to change in the near future. As Thomas Jefferson said, “those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny”.
Birsch, D & Fielder, J (1994). The Ford Pinto Case: A Study in Applied Ethics, Business, and Technology, State University of New York Press
Keller, J (2015). The Maddening Silver Lining to BP’s $18.7 Billion Oil Spill Penalty. Retrieved from http://www.psmag.com/politics-and-law/how-come-bp-gets-to-treat-fines-like-business-expenses-but-i-cant-even-get-out-of-this-parking-ticket
Kellerman, B. (2004). Bad leadership. What it is, how it happens, why it matters. Boston: Harvard Business School Press
Lipman-Blumen, J. (2005). The allure of toxic leaders. Why we follow destructive bosses and corrupt politicians — and how we can survive them. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Whalen, J, Barrett, D, & Loftus, P. (2012, July 3rd) Glaxo in $3 Billion Settlement. Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304299704577502642401041730
In the first century BC, the Latin mime and writer Publilius Syrus observed that “anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm”. In turmoil however, when decisions are critical, many leaders make grave errors in judgment (Kahnemann et al, 1982).
In 2012, Francesco Schettino, captain of the Costa Concordia, wrecked the £370 million vessel on the rocks near the island of Giglio – he claimed he had simply wished to greet a friend on shore. Highly competent, experienced and qualified leaders are often influenced by their hearts, leaving more rational, considered and impartial options submerged in their wake (Von Clausewitz, 2009).
Why and how do good leaders make bad decisions?
In Conrad’s The Secret Sharer, the unnamed captain’s decision to give safe harbour, transit and protection to Leggatt, a self-confessed murderer, ultimately jeopardises the future of his crew, ship and career. The captain’s inexperience, self-doubt and isolation lead him to align with, relate and even aspire to Leggatt’s freedom, self-determination and power. Prioritising such a man over the well-being of the crew is potentially perilous in the extreme (Klein, G. 1999).
The neuroscience of decision-making reveals three distinct phenomena concerning the captain’s choices. First, we know that he feels a stranger to the ship, the crew and to himself, and that his role is new to him. Thus, in the absence of contextual experience, he defers to a humanistic approach (Rogers, 1946), which is to help a cold and potentially drowning man.
Second, once he has assisted this man, it is psychologically natural for the captain to continue the “pattern” of help. Third, having attached an emotional “tag” to the successful protection of Leggatt, his rational decision-making ability is considerably impaired, if not entirely muted (Finkelstein et al, 2009).
Research tells us the decisions we make are almost instantaneous and often at an unconscious level (Nisbett and Wilson, 1977). Leaders must be aware that their brains are predisposed to deliver subjective conclusions, and seek to ensure this is counter-balanced through the use of appropriate safeguards, such as consultation, governance and debate. The Secret Sharer serves to highlight the rocky path set forth by unilateral and risky decisions.
Finkelstein, S., Whitehead, J., Campbell. A., (2009) "The illusion of smart decision making: the past is not prologue", Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 30 Iss: 6, pp.36 - 43
Finkelstein, S., Whitehead, J., Campbell. A., (2008) Think Again: Why Good Leaders Make Bad Decisions. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Press.
Kahneman, D., Slovic, P. and Tversky, A. (1982) Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases. New York. Cambridge University Press, 1982, p. 3
Klein, G. (1999) Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA.
Nisbett, R. E. & Wilson, T. D. (1977) Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes. Psychological Review 84(3):231–59
Rogers, C. R. (1946). Significant aspects of client-centered therapy. American Psychologist, 1, 415-422.
Von Clausewitz, C. (2009), On War, LeVergne, TN: Wildside Press, p. 42.
In 2002, CEO of Tyco International Dennis Kozlowski delivered a commencement speech at Saint Anselm College. “You will be confronted with questions every day that test your morals . . . for your sake, do the right thing, not the easy thing.” He was indicted for tax evasion 17 days later.
Many leaders embrace the concept and ideal of integrity. Enter the terms ‘leadership’ and ‘integrity’ into Google and there are more than 190 million results. Definitions of integrity are vague, however many maintain that without it, no leader can be truly successful (Hambrick & Mason, 1984). In the Turknett Leadership Character Model, integrity is defined as standing up for what is right, keeping promises and telling the truth (Turknett, 2005).
In Attenborough’s Gandhi, we observe a man whose life’s work is to bring about independence for his beloved India through the embodiment of non-violence, civil disobedience and brotherhood. Gandhi is victorious, and Britain withdraws from India. Gandhi did not however consider himself successful. In the end, he saw his newly independent country torn apart. His purity of purpose, honesty and integrity were not enough to secure a unified India.
Yet, whilst integrity alone does not always lead to a successful outcome (Gentry, et al, 2012), Gandhi demonstrated a leadership style that captured the world’s imagination and heavily influenced future leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr., Aung San Suu Kyi, Chavez and Ho Chi Minh. Gandhi’s success cannot be measured in India alone. His advocacy of non-violence and right action echoed across time and showed us an alternative to violence, greed, power and war. It’s a lesson current leaders can continue to learn from.
Gentry, W., Cullen, K. & Altman, D. (2012). The Irony of Integrity. A study of the character strengths of leaders. Center for Creative Leadership White Paper. Retrieved 27 March, 2016, from http://insights.ccl.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/IronyOfIntegrity.pdf
Hambrick, D. C., & Mason, P. A. (1984). Upper echelons: The organization as a reflection of its top managers. Academy of Management Review, 9, 193–206.
Turknett, R., & Turknett, C. (2005). Decent People Decent Company: How to
Lead with Character at Work and in Life. Mountain View, CA: Davies-Black
They had no idea I’d been told to force their resignations. “Up the pressure on them – they’ll soon buckle under the strain” my regional director asserted. Recently appointed as an area manager for a prominent 300 year old bank, I was condemned to ‘get rid of the dead weight’.
The bank wished to avoid costly redundancies by making life so stressful and untenable for their front-line managers that they left voluntarily. If I achieved this, there was a five-figure bonus in it for me. Twelve months later, so conflicted and anxious I could barely open my jaw, I resigned – voluntarily.
Like Kafka’s traveller, I was an outsider and initially reluctant to share my misgivings. Further, I was told of a ‘higher purpose’ and of how my actions would allow the bank to regain control of the market – securing jobs for those who remained. The cruel punishment I was to inflict should be administered slowly, gradually ensuring the managers “no longer had the strength” to remain – up their quotas, decrease their privileges and pit them against one another until they acquiesce.
Human beings are capable of the most exquisite acts of heroism, love and selflessness. Yet, introduce an influential authority figure who normalises cruelty, inhumanity and torture, and numerous studies show that most of us lack the ability to resist committing diabolical and horrific acts.
Examples such as the 450 volt electric shocks administered by participants in the 1963 Milgram experiment, the brutal and sadistic treatment of ‘prisoners’ by ‘guards’ in the 1973 Stanford Prison Experiment and the de-humanising effects of segregating schoolchildren in Elliot’s 1968 Blue Eyes, Brown Eyes experiment.
The above has taught me the critical importance of prioritising people in every endeavour. Without compassion for those over whom we hold power or influence, we are unfit to lead. No matter the personal or professional cost, we must all at times be prepared to say “I am opposed to this”.