Tuesday, April 08, 2008

What Leaders Fear

When a Greek tyrant in the days of the city-states was asked his secret of staying in power, he took his cane and neatly whacked off the tops of the cornstalks that rose above the others. Study dictators and you'll be struck by the extent to which their actions are governed by fear. You can persuasively argue that Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini were more interested in staying in power than in efficiency. They often sacrificed it and other organizational necessities for personal security.

One can conclude that if those individuals, who exercised enormous power over their associates, were fearful, then fear may be an inherent part of leadership. A counterpoint, however, would be that the more you are addicted to power, the more you fear losing it, and that dictators are examples of extreme power addicts and are not representative of the average leader. Most leaders know that they can survive a loss of power whereas dictators usually - and accurately - surmise that losing their position probably means losing their life. Wolves tend to surround themselves with wolves.

Dial down several notches and consider what leaders who do not exercise dictatorial power routinely fear:

  • Embarrassment. This is a status blow to many leaders. They'd be wise to learn how to laugh at themselves. Their employees, however, are equally wise to avoid any situations that may embarrass the leader.

  • Surprises. These are rarely good and are therefore unwelcome. Any surprise calls into question how much the leader knows.

  • Disloyalty. Most leaders fear disloyal acts. The truly paranoid also fear disloyal thoughts.

  • Encroachment. Even the best leaders will reserve some responsibilities and territory for themselves. When subordinates jump the chain of command, this fear may be enhanced.

All of these are forms of a loss of control. Leaders are reassured with information, deference, loyalty, and competence. Unfortunately, for many the last item is the lowest priority.

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