Real Leaders

Fear-Based Leadership Is Bad Business. Try These 4 Steps Instead

As a leader, you may be tempted to stoke people’s fear when they aren’t getting things done. Maybe this was the approach your bosses used on you. But if you aim to build people’s courage—to rise to the occasion, conquer new tasks, and embrace challenges—you won’t get there by putting fear inside them.

You’ll get there by filling workers with enough courage to dominate their fears. And the rewards are worth it. Workers who are courage-led are more engaged, committed, optimistic, loyal, and change-embracing.

Why wouldn’t they be?

Imagine working for a boss whose vision was so bold that it actually excited you. Imagine working for a manager who valued mistake-making as a natural and necessary part of your professional development. Imagine working for a manager who saw ass-kissing as a repulsive, manipulative, and dishonest thing.

Then go a step further and imagine what the whole company might look like if all the managers led by putting courage into their workers. It would be a workplace where you could implicitly trust the motives and intentions of everyone around you, where you could speak the unvarnished truth without fear, and where you would make more forward-falling mistakes in order to better serve the company (and clients).

It’s easier to do courageous things when you know that other people are doing them, too. When I was a high diver, for example, there was a strong feeling that we were all in it together. These days, I get the same sense of communal support with my whitewater kayaking buddies here in Asheville.

When paddling through treacherous whitewater, having the encouragement of your fellow river rats is more important than having a good boat. It makes it much easier to face an intimidating rapid when you know your buddies are there to save you if you get into a hairy situation. Similarly, when courage goes to work with each and every worker, the capacity of the entire organization to take on greater challenges is enlarged. Like ever-expanding concentric circles, every single act of courage at work has the potential to transform the business in unexpected ways. All it takes is someone to start the first ripple.


Courage-Building in Four Steps

People won’t start being courageous just because you tell them to. You’ve got to create an environment that encourages people to extend themselves and take chances. There are four core actions you need to take before expecting people to be more courageous. They constitute the Courage Foundation Model, and they follow a specific order:


  1. Jump First. Why on earth would you expect people to be courageous if you yourself are wimpy? Before nudging workers to be more courageous, you need to be the role model. Jumping in first allows you to gain firsthand experience with the challenges you’re asking workers to face, and it’s the best way to build credibility with your direct reports. By understanding the risks you’re asking people to take, you’ll be able to anticipate how much courage they’ll need to muster and which aspects of the challenge they’ll be more likely to balk at.
  2. Create Safety. Workers play it safe when it isn’t safe to not play it safe. Therefore, to get them to do more courageous things, you’ll need to weave safety nets that give them a sense of security as they work. Give people permission to be courageous by providing a safe space to express fears without embarrassment. Point out how they’re already doing that very thing they’re afraid of. Put stock in forward-falling mistakes—the “good” mistakes that key your team into something previously unknown—particularly if the lessons gleaned from those mistakes advance the team’s goals. And show people you have their backs by going to bat for them, consistently and courageously, with higher-ups.
  3. Harness Fear. Fear in the workplace is inevitable. Your job is to make fear useful by putting it to work for you, not by threatening workers, but by building up their capacity to be courageous. Sweaty-palms moments are a normal part of the work experience. By helping workers see their doubts and fears as natural occurrences, they can refocus their energy on the job at hand. They can use fear as fuel to do challenging and courageous things.
  4. Modulate Comfort. When it comes to career development, too much comfort can be a dangerous thing. As a manager, you’ll need to provide comfortable workers with work challenges that make them uncomfortable and keep them motivated. At the same time, if they become too uncomfortable, you’ll need to let them settle in long enough to gain confidence with their newfound skills.


When your behaviors are directed by courageous impulses, you are operating out of your best and braver self. When other people witness your newfound behaviors and the positive results the behaviors cause, they gradually step into their own courage, too. As they do, the energy level of your team lifts—and a can-do spirit takes hold.


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