Monday, May 21, 2012

Fear based leadership

There are ministry leaders whose primary leadership trait is that of fear. Before any decision is made, there are endless discussions of whether the decision is right, lots of second guessing, revisiting of the issue, dragging feet on pulling the trigger and anxiety about whether they should move forward or not. If some leaders are too impulsive, fear based leaders are so risk adverse and fearful of something going wrong that they become paralyzed by that fear.

This is crazy making for staff who want to get on with things and become frustrated when their decisions or recommendations get the same scrutiny, questions, and reservations as their boss's. Endless meetings are had, issues rehashed time and again, decisions made and then revisited. 

Why? Because the senior leader is so driven by not making a mistake, not communicating something improperly, not doing something that might fail. It is caution gone amok. It causes him or her not only to scrutinize their own decisions but those of others and leads to micromanaging the work of others out of the same fear. It is fear based leadership and is not true leadership at all.

Fearful leadership comes out of a lack of self confidence, deep anxiety about making a bad call and fear of what others will think if they make a poor decision. The fear paralysis of the leader becomes a paralysis for the organization as a whole. Because leading is about being in front of others, leading them into the future, fear based leadership is not leadership at all but is really just the opposite: keeping the organization from moving forward out of an abundance of caution. 

Fear based leaders need serious coaching or counseling to get at the root of the fear that haunts them. Unless they can understand those fears and face them they will not be able to lead or if they do will not attract and keep other good staff. 

If you suffer from decision making fear ask yourself, "What is the absolute worst thing that could happen if the decision went south?" How likely is that worst thing to happen? If it did would it be so bad? One soon realizes that the fear is not only unfounded but silly when you play out the scenario. 


Diana Guess said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gordon David Elder said...

Fear is often, even in the church, used by leaders to control their organization. But God has not given us a spirit of fear, that is the control mechanism of the world. Too often church leaders forget that they are under-shepherds, and they have responsibility, but Christ has ultimate responsibility.

R. Michael Fisher said...

Glad you folks are critiquing leadership in the church. I am grateful the "fear-based" concept is getting the attention it deserves, and I am also somewhat critical of how we don't nuance it often enough. The article I just published is entitled: "The Problem with Defining the Concept of 'Fear'-based'" (free pdf scroll down for document). I am looking to have more dialogue on this topic. Here is the full Abstract:
Abstract: Over the past 25 years of systematic research on fear and fearlessness, the author has found an ever-increasing use of the term "fear-based" by many and diverse authors, teachers, professionals and citizens-at-large. Particularly in the last decade the term, much like "culture of fear," has become popular across disciplines and is reflective of an interest, by diverse peoples, in human motivation at this deepest core "emotional" level. Most every writer-critic, in a binary (polarized) way of thinking, believes (or argues) that "fear-based" is negative and destructive, if not the source of all conflict, evil, and pathology—it appears a universal knowledge and "truth" that this is so. Love-based is usually held up as the opposite (i.e., binary stance). Although the author (a fearologist) has also taken that binary positioning for many years, upon recent philosophical reflection and some research, this is less than a satisfactory position, especially without nuancing its validity more systematically and without having the critical dialogues required to ferret out what we are talking about. He concludes, typically, this increase of usage of the "fear-based" label, important as it is, has not been very enlightening but rather repetitive, moralistically judgmental and cliché, because of little to no conceptual defining, theoretical critiques, specific measurable assessments, or critical thinking of what to do with the term "fear-based" when it is opposed (for example) to "love-based" in real life situations, with real actors and organizations coming from either fear-based or love-based paradigms. The many (and increasing) critics of anything "fear-based" always implicitly or explicitly identify as not fear-based (i.e., more or less, love-based) and morally superior. Without more critical analysis of the concept and its uses, the author feels the labeling starts to become embedded in ideology, secular and religious, turning at worst into extreme violent ideologism—an oppressive way to think. This introductory paper, a philosophical reflection based on fearlessness (and a critical integral approach), offers an initial discussion of these problems of using the label "fear-based" and offers some recommendations of how to improve our methodologies, claims of truth, and teaching (i.e., education about, for example, fear and love as root motivational constructs).

-R. Michael Fisher, Ph.D.