Leading in a time of fear

Nov 11, 2019

The three things that will help you lead in a time of fear

There’s a lot of good advice written about leadership in times of ambiguity and change, I’ve written some of it myself. But talking to a client today I realised that for many people we are not in a time of ambiguity and change, that’s always going to be there. We are in something very different that demands a very different approach. What we are in for many businesses is a time of straightforward, old-fashioned fear. 

The uncertainty of the world economy is compounded by lack of trust and divisive political leadership worldwide. In the UK there is all of that plus the uncertainty of Brexit. All this has led to a situation where people are genuinely fearful for their jobs and their safety and they do not trust their leaders. Leaders are also fearful of their jobs – the turnover of CEO’s has reached an all-time high. Boards are fearful of their reputation. 

There is a generation of young people who only see their future as bleak and who are furious with their parent’s generation for ruining their prospects – they too are afraid. 

The problem with fear is that it makes people behave very irrationally indeed. Fear freezes rational thought. As the sabre-toothed tiger of corporate failure roars in the undergrowth you rely on reaction rather than thought. The fear takes over. If you are a leader of any type of organisation, then you have to acknowledge this fear. You cannot ignore it, and it’s no good trying to pretend that it doesn’t exist. This is the moment when real leadership is called for, when you have to lead from your heart and not your head, when you have to speak the truth to the people around you. The truth may be hard to hear for many people but it is your responsibility to speak it. You may have to promise, as Churchill did in the dark days of the second World War “blood, toil, tears and sweat.” Pretending things are going away because you fear the repercussions is no good. Claiming it’s not your fault is even worse.

There have been some startling examples of appalling leadership lately – the CEO of ThomasCook shedding crocodile tears over job losses while defending his salary and his pension is the most recent.

There are three things that will help you avoid that trap – brutal honesty, relentless communication, and figuring out what you and your business can do to help.

1. Brutal honesty. Tell it like it is but make sure that you really understand what you are saying. If jobs are on the line, then tell people. Oddly enough it is much easier for humans to deal with hard reality than with soft uncertainty. If you have a plan, then tell people. If you can involve as many people as possible in the planning, then do so. Remember that the more diverse the group of people you involve the better result you will get.

2. Relentless communication. When you have decided what your plan is keep telling all your stakeholders. Don’t imagine that because you have communicated once you have done your job. The only way to stop the rumour mill playing with people’s heads is to tell them again and again what is happening.

3. What you and your business can do to help. Your duty as a business leader is to lead the business to survival – for the moment forget about anything but coming out of the other end of the tunnel with your business (and your dignity) intact. To do that you need to keep all your stakeholders with you. Be strong in your own moral compass and lead from it. Make sure that all pain is spread equally. If you have to cut salaries, then cut your own and that of your senior team first. If you have to cut dividends, then be honest with your shareholders. If you can’ Do not play games by making staff redundant and then hiring them back as consultants at twice the price. If you have to make cuts do them once and do them decently.

It is possible to lead in a time of fear. It will test every skill that you have to the utmost. If you can do it then you will be a truly extraordinary leader.


Photo by Jehyun Sung on Unsplash


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