Is Fear of Leading Crippling your Personal and Organizational Growth?

Blog_19.pngWhat fears might be holding you back from fully empowering yourself as a true leader? What kind of leader do you aspire to be and your organization needs to become so that it can survive in the future?  For the last 10-20 years, an entire industry of leadership literature and gurus has been issuing definitions of leadership and an array of tips and techniques for teaching us how to lead.  For me the word “leader” somehow conjures up Hollywood portraits of powerful, tough-talking and unscrupulous corporate executives: J.R Ewing; Michael Douglas in Wall Street.

Leadership expert, Dr. Michael Maccoby, however, argues that a different type of leader has emerged as successful in the knowledge work place. In this fast-paced and fluid environment the leaders who are changing their industries are those who have the capacity to motivate and unleash innovation rather than those who lead for efficiency through “command and control” methods.  Maccoby also sees a fundamental distinction between leaders and managers.  “Leadership,” he writes, “always involves a relationship as contrasted with management which has to do with processes and systems . . .” And this is the key. Many chief and senior executives fail because they cannot cross the gap between leading through statements, ideas, rules and procedures and engaging and motivating human beings.

The association governance systems of consensus and hierarchical structures are set up to reward manager-leaders and discourage innovative leadership on any level. While associations must become people and market-centric to succeed, I am focusing on the obstacles that are intangible and self-imposed: fear of disapproval, change, loss of status, abandoning old assumptions; fear of uncertainty or ambiguity. How can association leaders empower themselves and update the leadership models of their organizations?

AIHA (American Industrial Hygiene Association) was successful in executing a strategy of cultural transformation in spite of the built-in limitations of the organizational model, under the leadership of Peter O’Neil AIHA’s Executive Director and Chair of the ASAE Board of Directors.  To succeed, Peter:

  1. Exercised a new type of people-centered and relationship-focused leadership.
  2. Anchored change in the human dimensions of the association: motivation, behavior, culture, incentives and rewards.
  3. Took risks and overcame some of the fears that most cripple leaders.

When O’Neil joined the association about 10 years ago, the organization was successful by any accepted measures of success. Yet something did not seem right to him. Looking beyond the numbers, he quickly realized that these success indicators were merely operational and would not be sustainable by themselves. In fact, on the realm of experience, the association was fragmented, closed, tense and inefficient, bordering on the dysfunctional. There was mistrust in the relationships between and among staff and volunteer leaders. Without a common purpose to unify stakeholders, individual political agendas and subjective criteria drove discussions and actions. It became apparent to O’Neil that if they “had continued in the same course, AIHA would not have been able to maintain its success.”

For a new executive to question rather than bask in the surface indicators of success must have required courage. Interestingly, none of the successful leaders in our study allowed fear to drive their decisions.

Fear to be overcome: keeping one’s sight on the total picture and resisting the pull of “business as usual” and the trap of constantly reacting to the unending stream of tactical crises that were mere symptoms of larger problems.

Peter chose to concentrate his efforts on cultural transformation because, as he said: “Governance and culture are key foundations. They determine the direction, tone and everything else in an association.”

Cultural change is a tough strategic choice, however.  Its role in determining the tone, practices and direction of an organization is often missed while tactics and what is immediately visible are mistaken for the “real” business of an organization.  A new program or quick fix has an immediate impact on one’s board of directors or donors, even if they bring about no substantive or sustainable results.

Fear to be overcome: Leading for sustainable results rather than easy praise through short-term, surface achievements.

O’Neil spent all of his 10 years at AIHA implementing cultural change and building capabilities for the future.

Fear to be overcome: Committing to long-term paths to transformation and competency building.

O’Neil made another leap from management to leadership by converting ideas into execution, for example he:

  • Replaced 42% of staff members who were major contributors to organizational dysfunction with new staff without “baggage” and agendas.
  • Eliminated many of the silos
  • Empowered innovation beyond functions and departments by enabling staff to take on additional cross-functional roles to develop and test an innovative idea or participate in project teams.
  • Reduced the size of the Board

A very important and subtler step was to back intent with measures of success, values, rewards and incentives that would embed changes in the fabric of daily habits, practices and ways of thinking. For example, he established:

  1. Objective rather than subjective criteria: A new  idea, priority or decision has to make a case on the basis of the value it  delivers to the association and its members, rather individual agendas,      political expediency, emotional needs, title or position.
  2. Mutual responsibility and accountability: the association took   responsibility for constantly developing, empowering and supporting staff   while staff now shared quantifiable responsibility for the association’s  overall performance and bottom line.
  3. Tolerance for risk: “Not only do we tolerate risk,”  O’Neil tells us, “but we encourage it and learn from it.”

Fear to be overcome: Putting “teeth” behind ideas and mandates to convert talk into action; aligning operations, measures, criteria, incentives and rewards with strategy.

Leading to results, especially new results, is a long-term endeavor rather than a magic pill you take once. Peter O’Neil could not implement all changes at once. But having built the culture and competencies that AIHA needed to grow, he is now ready to tackle other challenges such as fundamental transformation of the entire business model and relationships with members and markets.

To become an effective leader for the knowledge age requires thinking and doing things outside the safety of “business as usual,” and the ability to engage and motivate rather than rely on authority conferred by title or position. It requires comfort with ambiguity and improvisation and resourcefulness in navigating the new and uncharted territory of a fast changing environment. Leadership in such environment openly acknowledges and confronts, but is not driven by, fear and avoidance of risk.


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