Demons and Tyrants: Facing our Fears and Liberating Leadership

“Fear is the cheapest room in the house. I encourage you to find better living quarters.” Hafiz

My work is helping leaders at all levels see more clearly the reality they and others are in, building their self-awareness and system awareness to then take more effective action.  Yet this week I have been faced, again, with the uncomfortable reminder that a part of me doesn’t want to see reality and prefers to live in an illusory, dreamlike, Manichean world of good and bad. Of course I’m on the side of good! Our compulsive busyiness also serves as a protective device, our reason for not slowing down, for not pausing to acknowledge or name our fears or to see our part in the situations we find so perplexing.  I’m reminded of the oft quoted phrase: “human beings can only deal with so much reality”.

Perhaps this has been one of the attractions of the Royal wedding in the UK last week, with 2 billion people watching it across the globe on TV, that for a day (or longer) we become entranced in a fairy tale.

In our organisational work we need to have accurate maps of the human condition if we are to be effective.  I remember years ago whilst working for one of the big four consultancies being highly distrustful of the standard change management methodologies mainly because they had an over-simplistic view of how human beings operate. It wasn’t particular to that firm. It’s one of the reasons why 70% of change projects still fail to deliver expected benefits.

So what’s fear got to do with it and how should we work with our and other people’s fears?

There are five key points to remember:

1.    Befriend your fear and learn as you go. Most significant challenges facing organisations are complex. This means what we, or others, have done before may not be useful to create the way forward. We have to befriend ‘not knowing’, which is different from ignorance, if we are to create something new; this is what many of us fear. We also have to be more willing to embrace uncertainty: engaging with stakeholders over whom we may have no formal power, whose worlds we don’t understand and whom, at least at the start, we may even fear. This is why courage is essential to leadership; courage like fear is infectious. Small, everyday courageous acts encourage and engender other acts of courage. As leaders, or as coaches and consultants to senior leaders, we need to create cultures that are conducive to learning, accepting of human fallibility and supportive of creative experimentation.

2.    It’s not just you – fear is epidemic but innoculations are available.  If Descartes said “I think therefore I am” the modern equivalent seems to be “I worry therefore I am.”  As the Iranian poet Hafiz reminds us the house of fear is a place where many people choose to make their home. The first step is to change our living circumstances and see how fear operates in our lives and how it controls us. Honesty is required and courage (again) to acknowledge and name our fears. Many fears dissipate in their potency when exposed to the light of day and when explored and tested with trusted colleagues and friends.  This is where liberation comes in as we re-connect with the power of our choice and intentionality.

3.    You are not alone and you are not solely responsible. One of the most pernicious aspects of our thinking around leadership is the continuing dominance of the idea of the Hero Leader and the associated tyranny of perfection and self-sufficiency; fears and concerns are not shared, responsibility remains located with a few or only one person, and we unwittingly place others in a position of passivity. There is a much greater collective capacity waiting to be released and connected if we can revision leadership as universally available.

4.    Self awareness and system awareness are key. There are strong forces at play within ourselves and within the systems of which we are a part:  power, fear, hate, compassion, love, gratitude, ingratitude, forgiveness, resentment…  We need to be able to distinguish whether our feelings are clues about our own stuff or the condition of the wider system. There is no one practice to rely on to do this but journaling, reflection groups with colleagues/peers, external supervision/coaching and some personal discipline like mindfulness or meditation are also possibilities. We must build this discernment of what is personal and needs attention within us and what is an aspect of the dynamics of the wider system and therefore needs a more systemic approach.

5.    Change the Conversation.  In Brighton where I live, I went down to witness (not support) a ‘March For England’ demonstration (a network associated with far Right groups) and the counter-march by Unite Against Fascism (UAF) in the weekend following St George’s Day. As I left I heard the UAF group start the chant: “Racist Scum! Off our Streets.”  What seemed to unite both groups is the language of fear and hate. The dominant conversation in our communities and wider society is one of fear and control.  If we are to take seriously our role as co-creators of our world we need to change the conversations in our heads and with others to one of possibility, ownership, commitment, gifts and generosity and away from fear and retribution. This applies equally to our organisational lives as well as wider society.


3 Responses to Demons and Tyrants: Facing our Fears and Liberating Leadership

  1. Danny Chesterman says:

    Hi John

    Love your blog on fear. In my journey recently I have been realising how to be ‘awake’ is to be uncertain……and playing with a twist on the TS Eliot line that you refer to in your opening lines…. Human beings cannot bear very much uncertainty. Also, who was it who said if you are not confused then you are not thinking clearly?


  2. Stuart Reid says:

    Thanks John; lots of little nuggets in that post for me: the need to change ourselves first if we want to encourage change elsewhere; the difference between ‘not knowing’ and ‘ignorance’; and the power of small, everyday courageous acts.

    I read a nice little blog post from Brene Brown recently on ‘busyness’ and the damage it does to ourselves, which you might enjoy if you haven’t read it.

    Thanks for sharing John; I found that a refreshing read.


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