Fear-based leadership: Motivation matters a lot

  • Published
  • By Gene Kamena
  • professor of leadership, Air War College
Every leader possesses a motivating spark - the energy that drives a leader forward and determines how the leader's unique traits are actually brought to bear. When the spark of leadership is lit by a desire to make things happen and to make a difference in the lives of others regardless of personal cost, the outcome is usually positive. Unfortunately, some leaders today are motivated by fear -- of failing, of making a mistake, of what others might think. Leaders in this category should examine their actions and, most importantly, reappraise their motivational spark.

If you have been in or around the military for any length of time, you know the kind of leader about which I am writing. They are overly cautious and test the environment before acting. They are risk averse and, too often, are rewarded for not making waves. One might assume fear-based leadership is most prominent in junior leaders, and time and maturity would remedy this deficit of character. This is not the case; in fact, fear-based leaders are found at all levels of command and throughout the gamut of leadership positions in our services.

Fear-based leaders are most effective when things are going well and when there is no requirement for decisive action. They are at their best when the environment is predictable and certain. The reality of our world, however, is no one can promise stable environments and certainties. The thing that keeps these leaders up at night is the specter of crisis, when the spotlight of attention places them front-and-center, demanding a critical decision be made without hesitation. When circumstances prevent the sampling of opinions and perceptions, when action is required and risk must be accepted, the fear-based leader often proves inadequate. They usually pick the safe course of action because, the middle of the road is where fear-based leaders live. Sometimes the safe choice works out fine, but there are times when it is absolutely the worst course of action possible.

How are fear-based leaders made? They are formed in zero-defect environments that do not allow for creativity or mistakes. Once formed, these leaders often thrive in the "don't make waves" culture of the corporate military. Unfortunately, this species of leader affects all those around them by becoming a model of how to succeed.

What can be done? Our military services must value appropriate risk-taking. This requires more than just words. Risk-takers must be supported and rewarded. Addressing creativity and risk acceptance on performance reports might be a first step. Senior leaders are obligated to encourage subordinate leaders who do not "go with the flow."

The actions of senior leaders speak louder than their words; therefore, how fear-based leaders are handled will come through loud and clear. If senior leaders call out those who always play it safe, often to the detriment of the mission or progress, then the message that it is OK, and actually valued, to go out on a limb from time to time will spread quickly.

Fear-based leaders can do much to correct their behavior. If you find yourself overly cautious, then ask yourself - am I more concerned with appearing wrong than being wrong? A leader can be forgiven for being wrong (once in a while) if acting in the best interest of the mission, organization and others. What cannot be tolerated is the leader who is more concerned with appearances than doing what is required.

At the end of the day, all leaders must look into the mirror and know they did their best. No leader can achieve good outcomes if motivated or unduly influenced by fear. Motivation matters a lot. What type of leader do you see in the mirror?