Leaders be Afraid. Be very Afraid

I’ll never forget the look on his face as he stormed into my classroom. Face reddened and distorted from the exertion of racing up the rickety stairs and from the raw anger. Incredible anger that caused his voice and whole body to shake as he opened the door and said in a low and constrained voice “Miss McKeown, I need to see you NOW!”

I was far away from home. Germany in fact. I thought someone had died. It was a long and torturous walk back down the narrow, dim staircase to my boss’s office. And it was not until the door closed abruptly behind us that he unleashed his fury and I realised no one had died, but my tenure was definitely looking terminal.

He waved a paper madly about him and screamed something about unacceptable and Australian culture (he was British) and the impetuousness of my age (I was only 23). It dawned on me as I sat there holding steady through the barrage that I had caused this. More specifically the piece of paper he waved erratically with my writing on it had caused this.

Students paid a lot of money to attend our private business school. I saw some opportunities for improvement and shared them with abandon, (in writing!). They were not well received!

I managed to keep my job. Given my age and my nationality my boss felt I knew no better. So with a stern ‘never let it happen again’ I staggered from his office still employed, but somewhat shaken. But the overriding emotion was one of disappointment. I had put some thought into the proposal I penned and had come up with some great ideas that would have enhanced both business reputation and student experience. The opportunity was lost because my boss was driven by fear and inconvenience.

“Miss McKeown, if we give the students a voice they will just complain.”

“Miss McKeown, you are too young to understand that you can’t please everyone and trying to do so only ends in trouble.”

“Miss McKeown, I’m not sure how they do things in Australia, but it is certainly not the way things are done in Germany!”

While my experience as a young lecturer is far behind me one thing has remained constant. Fear. My boss all those years ago was my first taste of fear-driven leadership and I have been advocating against it ever since.

I see it in our politicians and I face it head on with my clients.

It is too easy to be led by fear. A concern for the consequences our decisions may cause. A drop in popularity or a fall from grace. Or as our Australian political leaders have shown us: losing your job, getting it back and losing it again.

It’s too easy to point the finger and demand our leaders step up, be consistent and stand for what they believe in. The problem is we are a fickle lot and as my boss all those years ago pointed out, “You can’t please everyone and trying to do so only causes grief!”

So leaders are doing it tough in a world difficult to navigate and a people impossible to please. And the people they serve are doing it tough in a world where leaders struggle to hear or see them clearly through the veil of fear.

But I believe I have the solution…


Not the kind of honesty that gets lost in such buzzwords as authenticity and values.

The kind of honesty that recognises the fears, names them, calls them out pragmatically so everyone can pull together and get on with it.

It’s like the small child in a darkened bedroom waiting for the monster to come out from under the bed.

It’s like many of my clients who are adamant they couldn’t broach a particular topic with a particular individual in the workplace because it might be career ending or career damaging. Just like my letter back in Germany. I am yet to have a client lose their job or find their tenure compromised through a well-placed, robust conversation. In fact, it usually enhances who they are and the role they play.

Over the next few days and weeks pay attention to what you are afraid of. Be honest. Consider who you can share your fear with. Be honest. Not gratuitous. Just honest.

Do not shy away from the opportunity to step into your fear. Something I expect in myself and nurture in my children and clients.

“Fear is a natural reaction to moving closer to the truth.”
Pema Chödrön

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