3 Ways to Spot a Fear-Driven Leader
All of us are motivated by something. Whether it’s money, power, control—even the feeling of being needed—we all have internal motivating factors that drive our thinking, beliefs and, ultimately, our actions.
Fear is one of the most common, but least talked about, factors that drives leaders every day.
It’s not talked about often because fear is actually pretty hard to spot. When we think about fear, we usually envision someone cowering in a corner paralyzed by fright.
When it comes to leadership, though, this image of fear isn’t what we see. Rather, fear in leaders is often disguised as:
- Being in full control
None of us is exempt from fear, regardless of our titles or positions. God’s Word often speaks about fear, and it tells us that the only healthy fear is the fear of the Lord.
Now fear can be pretty easy to spot when we are afraid for our health or safety. But what about that hidden fear—the kind so prevalent in leaders? Are there warning signs that could indicate we may be leading others out of fear and insecurity?
You bet! If you spot any of these 3 signs in your leadership style, you can be pretty sure that fear is the motivating factor:
Sign 1: Desire for Control
Fearful leaders strive to control every aspect of the work environment. In this scenario, they believe that no one can get the job done, whatever that may be, as well as they can. Fearful leaders frequently critique, correct, change directions on the fly, control information and are very protective of relationships. All decisions are concentrated at the top, and no one can “sneeze” without having the leaders’ permission.
By creating a controlled environment, fearful leaders stifle creativity and fresh ideas and, ultimately, halt the growth and potential influence of their organizations while protecting the status quo.
Jesus, the greatest leader role model, is a wonderful example of a leader who refused to lead by controlling people or circumstances. While Judas, one of the 12 disciples, was plotting Jesus’ betrayal, Jesus never attempted to control Judas. Instead, He continued to love him, because Jesus knew His only task was to obey the will of His Father.
How do we overcome fear of losing control? By letting go of it. There is really no other way.
If you struggle with control:
- Spend some time in solitude with the Father and ask Him to reveal to you fears that drive your controlling behavior.
- Practice letting go of control one decision at a time and journal about it.
- Find an accountability partner who has your permission to challenge you to let go of control.
Sign 2: Desire for Perfection
Fear-drive leaders often hide behind the drive for perfection. Decisions become a drawn-out process, and opportunities are missed, all in the name of perfection.
Perfection is not excellence, yet many leaders confuse the two. They talk about excellence, but all the while they are pursuing perfectionism.
So what’s the difference?
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines perfectionism as “a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable; especially: the setting of unrealistically demanding goals accompanied by a disposition to regard failure to achieve them as unacceptable and a sign of personal worthlessness.”
Excellence is simply defined as: “extremely high quality” and “the quality of being outstanding or extremely good.”
In his book Moving Past Perfect, Thomas Greenspoon gives a helpful side-by-side comparison of perfection and excellence. Here is what he says:
Excellence = risk / Perfection = fear
Excellence = effort / Perfection = anger and frustration
Excellence = openness to being wrong / Perfection = having to be right
Excellence = spontaneity / Perfection = control
Excellence = flow / Perfection = pressure
Excellence = confidence / Perfection = doubt
Excellence = journey / Perfection = destination
Excellence = acceptance / Perfection = judgment
Excellence = encouraging / Perfection = criticizing
Looking at this list, can you see why perfectionism tends to stop us in our tracks?
Jesus modeled the pursuit of excellence better than any other leader.
- Jesus took a risk by recruiting young, inexperienced, sinful, not-really-all-that-religious guys to carry out His great mission.
- Jesus was OK with others’ failures, as long as they weren’t final! Jesus’ relationship with impetuous Peter is probably the greatest example.
- Jesus took time to pause for spontaneous interactions with others. Remember Zacchaeus—the tax collector who climbed a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus and ending up sharing a meal in his own house with his Savior?
- Jesus displayed incredible confidence in His disciples. After spending only three years with them, He physically departed from them, confident that they could carry on His mission of building His church.
Sign 3: Failure Is NOT an Option
Fear of failure is a very common motivator for leaders. It creates an environment of “analysis paralysis,” where key decisions are delayed or never made due to “not enough information” when it’s really the fear of potential failure. By the time a decision is finally made, it's usually too late.
Because personal failure is not an option, fear-driven leaders constantly blame others for whatever is plaguing their organizations.
In his book Leadership Is Not For Cowards, Mike Staver writes:
“Blame-based leadership seeks to find a bad guy so that there is someone to absorb the problem, like a lightning rod absorbs a bolt of otherwise dangerous electricity. If a bad guy can be found, then everyone else can take a collective sigh of relief. For that particular problem, they are off the hook. If it’s marketing’s fault, then operations can’t possibly be responsible for the train wreck. If it’s operations’ fault, management can’t have done anything wrong.
“Acknowledging that you are ultimately responsible for the results of your life, thoughts, and actions creates a level of freedom not experienced by those who choose to blame others. It empowers you to act. Courageous leaders are driven by, even obsessed with, the imperative to eliminate excuse making and blame from themselves and their organizations.”
Jesus was gentle with the failures of others. When Peter lost faith while walking on water, Jesus was there to save him from drowning. When disciples scattered after Jesus’ death, He came back to encourage them and not to scold them. When dealing with failures of others, Jesus coached and taught them little by little how to fearlessly live out their calling.
What Motivates You?
Is fear a factor in your day-to-day decision-making and leadership? If we are honest, all of us must admit that fear is present at some level in our lives. Think of Moses, Joshua, David, Paul and Peter—all these God-fearing leaders experienced the weight of fear in leadership. It's not really the presence of fear but how we choose to live and lead despite our fears that truly matters.
Will we continue to give in to fear and be paralyzed by it? Will our families, churches and organizations continue to lose influence as we lead through control, perfectionism and fear of failure? Or will we choose to daily surrender our fears to the One who already conquered fear and death, the One who has given us everything we need for living and leading courageously?
By His grace, let’s choose to lead like Jesus.
Written by Megan Pacheco
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