A Culture of Fear

I had the privilege of listening to a talk given by Alan Mullaly. Alan spent most of his career with Boeing and ended up as CEO of their passenger jet business. In September 2006 he took on the role of CEO of Ford Motor Company. Evidence that Alan had walked into a culture of fear soon became clear. As he took over, Ford was facing a $17 billion loss. His initial question to the executive team was something like: ‘What is going wrong here we are about to lose $17billion?’ Eventually one executive admitted that their division was having difficulties. Everyone expected that this news would be received badly. However, Alan began to clap his hands thanking him for what he had said and asked him, “How can we help?”

Alan Mulally had worked out that amazing things can happen when people work well together. What was needed was a new culture that emphasised a collaborative approach to solving problems.

Have you experienced a working environment where fear was the dominant energy? When you work for leaders who are working out of fear you inevitably end up doing so as well! This type of culture makes team members keep thinking: ‘is this good enough or what will be said if…’

The results of such a culture are not hard to predict. Any team members with any backbone will not last and others will settle into lives of quiet desperation. It is for this very reason I am so passionate about good leadership.

What is your experience? What results do you see where a culture of fear exists?

Fear produces its own fruit – anxiety, despair. Often these cultures will arise out of a misunderstanding of how to motivate people or because the leader is insecure and possibly threatened by the talent of others on the team. As a result, the leader switches to control mode and micro-management and constant monitoring become the norm.

What if there is a better way?

As leaders you must understand that if you use fear to intimidate, to get people to do what you want them to do, then it will only ever be short term in its influence. Once you are out of the room your influence will dissipate.

There is a better way. It requires courage. It requires you as leaders to face your fears and do the hard work of personal development to create a culture around you that encourages and empowers.

For my new book I interviewed several leaders, and this is what they had to say about leading with love or care for those you lead:

  • “Vital – valuing team members for who they are means they will contribute more.”
  • “Builds strong and effective teams.”
  • “Fundamental, people need to know you care about them.”
  • “Key to a healthy culture.”
  • “If you lack Emotional Intelligence it will put a lid on your leadership.”

Leading with the highest good for others in mind will produce different fruit – trust, innovation, being able to bring your best, and creativity, to name just a few.

Counterintuitively choosing to be vulnerable and to exhibit humility actually increases your credibility (assuming mistakes are not habitual) as a leader. It means taking responsibility for when the team fails in some way as well as taking credit (collectively I hope) for the wins.

As teams move to remote or hybrid models of working, micro-managing and leading through fear become harder and less and less productive. Alan Mullaly learnt early on that there is power in collaboration and this doesn’t happen in a climate of fear. When he applied the same principles to Ford it turned Ford around and back into profit from near bankruptcy.

Take Courage

Leadership requires courage, the kind of courage that acknowledges when something is broken and then goes about working to fix it. As ever the leader goes first. The results though are worth it.

“Daring greatly means the courage to be vulnerable. It means to show up and be seen. To ask for what you need. To talk about how you\’re feeling. To have the hard conversations.” Brené Brown.

You can find more on this topic in my new book here.

Stay safe.

Mark Billage

Mark Billage

Mark’s passion is to help realise individuals’ potential, be they leaders or team members, through empowering organisational culture. He has spent 7 years leading an organisation based in the non profit sector. In that time, he focused on creating a culture that enabled and empowered individuals, with the aim of seeing a high performing team better able to achieve the organisation’s mission.

Our Vision

To train and equip leaders to transform culture, build successful teams and organisations where everyone is seen, heard and valued for their unique contribution.

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