29 Oct 2020 21:18 IST

Don’t let fear and desire sink your leadership

Leaders who use fear to inspire performance or the reward-based system may not see the results they want

It seems like it’s election time all over the world. Trump faces Biden in the upcoming US elections. And here in India, several States are either going into elections or gearing up for it. With elections come power games — games that play on two deep-seated human tendencies. One outstanding book that I would recommend all aspiring business leaders to read is I Am That — a collection of talks by Nisargadatta Maharaj. He was an ordinary bania (shopkeeper) but blessed with what could only be described as divine wisdom and insight.

In one of his conversations, he speaks of life being like a river that freely flows. But one bank of the river is fear, the other is desire. If we attempt to hold onto either bank, that’s when our lives become a Sisyphean struggle. But if we let go and allow ourselves to flow with life then it is much more loving, joyful, and peaceful. Business leaders often get caught up in playing games with power and desire. They become cheap tools that leaders use to intimidate their teams and purchase performance. In the long run, these tools fail.

Fear vs love

I often ask audiences I work with what is the opposite of love. Most respond by saying ‘hate.’ But the real opposite of love is fear. Think back to all the situations of hate we have known of — Hitler supervising the slaughter of over six million Jews. He didn’t hate them — he feared them. The Kauravas didn’t hate the Pandavas — they feared them — that they would be more powerful, more loved. Every racist act is an act of fear, not hate. Every Hindu-Muslim riot again has ‘fear’ at its root. It’s a powerful and destructive emotion. For a weak leader, it is a tempting path to take.

Most business leaders instinctively use fear to drive their teams in the pursuit of business goals and when pushing for achievement. “If you don’t do this, then…” seems to be the often expressed and implied threat that bosses tend to default to. This is especially true in a crisis. We see Trump playing this card to the hilt.

“If Biden wins, you will have a communist America.”

“If Biden wins, you will have immigrants overrunning America.”

Each day he comes up with newer ways of igniting and fanning the flames of fear. Part of this comes from his business background, where he used fear as his primary weapon, epitomised in his notorious line from his reality show, “You’re fired.” In India, much of the government apparatus survives on creating fear and ensuring it stays the dominant emotion — whether it is subjugating a whole State and imprisoning its political leaders for months on end or ensuring a compliant bureaucracy and judiciary. Much of India stays quiet, again, because of the same stranglehold of fear.

As business leaders, we have to question whether this works. We quickly realise that a leader who depends on fear to get things done is not a leader at all. It is hardly a leadership trait to use threats, the withdrawal of perceived perks and benefits, a transfer, a termination, as a means to motivate and drive results. This often leads to immediate and short-term gains or compliance and could perhaps explain why it is so widely resorted to. But it burns more than it builds in the long run.

In the movie ‘Ford v Ferrari,’ we see Henry Ford II, played by Tracy Letts, tell all the workers to walk home. “While you're walking, I want you to ruminate. Man comes to my office with an idea, that man keeps his job. Rest of you, second-best losers... stay home. You don't belong at Ford.” Classic fear-centred leadership style. Contrast that with Carrol Shelby’s character, played by Matt Damon, and his way of managing and leading Ken Miles (Christian Bale). Shelby motivates Miles by only appealing to his love of driving, to his passion for the ‘perfect lap’. Truly high-quality talent is rarely motivated by fear — they couldn’t care less if you fired them.

Empty bravado

Which is why when leaders use fear as their primary management tool, they often end up with mediocre teams — wimps and saboteurs. The wimps will go to great lengths of sycophancy, the saboteurs will nod assent on the surface, but will passive-aggressively work to undercut the leader.

Some leaders wear their ability to inspire fear as a badge of honour — “I’d rather be feared than loved.” But this bravado does not create great teams or great organisations. Leaders need to harness what people love, what they are passionate about, and bring that to bear on the organisation’s goals as well as fulfil their personal aspirations. This does not mean that leaders who refuse to use fear as a tool, are pushovers. They are rigorous rather than ruthless. They are firm about their expectations and demand high standards, and will follow through with consequences if those are not met.

But their resolve is to seek what is good in people, not what is base. They urge people to rise up, not to ‘stand by’ as President Trump did. Fear is like the animal that finally bites its trainer — from Mussolini, to Saddam Hussein, to Bin Laden to several business leaders — they used fear against others but when things turned against them each proved themselves cowards eventually devoured by fear itself.

Desire vs detachment

The second emotion that leaders appeal to is desire. A promotion is held up like the perpetually dangling carrot before the donkey’s nose. Leaders believe the desire for that promotion, for a bonus, for a coveted perk, will serve as the motivator that drives performance. This often works much better than the fear-strategy. It is more positive and gives people something to aspire for. But in many cases leaders have squandered their leadership by buying loyalty, bribing for performance — until the runway runs out beneath their feet. Good times suddenly go on hold. A crisis hits. Then it is leadership like Churchill’s — I-have-nothing-to-offer-but blood-toil-tears-and-sweat variety that is needed. There is no reward to offer, just hard reality. This is when leaders are sifted and the fakes who coasted on purchased performance are found out. The Covid pandemic created such a challenge in several companies. Bonuses and salary hikes were gone, the usual comp-and-ben candy store was empty, and leaders were forced to dig deep and truly motivate.

As Irv Blitzer (John Candy) would say in Cool Runnings (1993), “A gold medal is a wonderful thing. But if you’re not enough without one, you’ll never be enough with one.” That’s again the special-talent type who thinks and works and plays like that. They’ll do their best even without the promise of a prize. Excellence is a prize in itself. The leader who seeks to motivate with a juicy reward is impotent here. This warrior-type is not motivated by reward. They are detached from it. The leader treasures such talent and gives them the higher prize they seek — the freedom to pursue their passion, the freedom to excel, the freedom to drive the ‘perfect lap.’

Fear and desire extract a toll. Even investment gurus speak of these as the enemies of wise investment. Fear leads to panic, to hasty decisions, desire leads to greed that blinds people to reality. The mature leader sees these impostors for what they are. She conquers them in herself first. And then she frees herself to truly lead.

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