Part 1: from fear towards love

Why are so many people leading from a place of fear?

I recently went on a walk with my Dad and we talked a lot about leadership. He has 40 years experience in it, and has so much wisdom. Something that naturally came up was the abuse of power by politicians, and leadership, people who are close minded in their outlooks on life and our experiences of dealing with them.

I asked him, “But what it is Dad that corrupts these people?”
“It’s power Michael, the power they have, they want more.”
I felt there was more to it than that.
“But is it as simple as that, they just want more power? What is driving that need for power? What is underneath that?”

We talked more and one thing that we realised is that somewhere in their development, leaders make a choice.

They chose to lead from love or to lead by fear.

Where fear is useful and where it is not

Fear is very useful. It’s a natural evolutionary response that stops us swimming out too far in the sea, makes us look carefully before crossing the road, makes sure we wear gloves when lifting hot food out of the oven. We have learned that certain things can bring pain and danger, and so we have a level of fear and heightened awareness about them. But that doesn’t mean that we lie awake at night scared of the heat of the oven! It just means that we know things can be dangerous to us, and the fear of pain reminds us to take precautions to protect ourselves.

This is all well and good, but can you imagine trying to describe your leaders like that?

They are dangerous
They can cause you pain
You have to take precautions around them so you don’t get hurt

And yet unfortunately there are many leaders in the world today who are like that.

Consider yourself for a moment- are people scared of you? Are you known for being able to cause pain and suffering? Do people have to take precautions around you to handle you? Hopefully not, but even if so, there is a way forward.

There’s a scene in the excellent sci fi film Donnine Darko where the high school students are shown by their teacher a continuum line with fear on one side and love on the other. Fear is in the “negative energy spectrum” and love is in the “positive energy spectrum.” Students are asked to place life events on either side of the line, either as motivated by fear or love. One student rightly questions the simplicity and reductionism of such an approach, saying it ignores the vast variety of extraneous variables and other emotions outside of these two. Life cannot simply be classed as moments of either fear or love.

So we need to be careful when speaking of our motives and reducing life events down into simplicities, and yet there was some value to be had in the film’s exercise- however badly presented it is by the teacher. We tend to live according to that which we value, so if we value fairness, we try to be fair. If we value integrity, then we do our best to show and live integrity in our lives, as we are acting from a deeper part of ourselves.

What we can learn from the military

Now we have considered how people can often reduce life down into fear and love, to try and apprehend it and make it more manageable, and that we tend to live according to our values, we can use these to look at leadership. Fear is not a value, it is not something that we need to think about, or attempt to show in our lives, it’s part of our evolutionary biology, it’s a survival mechanism built into us. When we are fearful, we are not at our best, we are scared, in a heightened state, often anxious and possibly panicked. People who live in a consistent state of fear can be easily manipulated, intimidated and controlled, because they are so worn down by exposure to the things they are scared of.

Some people I have met think that leading through fear can be useful. They often mix it in with concepts such as discipline and routine and respect. Discipline and routine and respect are all excellent things, but they do not need to be modelled on fear. The marines are know for their infamous drill sergeants, shouting at recruits, and of their incredibly tough training camps. And yet, marine servants when interviewed will tell you that the point of this is not to make the recruits scared of their leaders. It is to get the people to work together, to put themselves to one side and be a team- a place where no person is left behind and the unit can always achieve more together.

My experiences in life with friends and colleagues who are military or ex military has taught me the same. The men and women talk of respect and camaraderie with their team mates. They talk of the discipline of what they had to do, and of high standards. The fear was always there, but it was a natural state that came with combat and seeing death up close. There’s no need to motivate with fear- it is already there. I’ve never heard them talking of fear of their leaders, only love for their team mates.

Fear is such a terrible tool for leaders to use to build their communities, teams and systems: you will never get the best out of people. They will always be looking over their shoulder, they will not show respect or admiration, only fear. There will not be laughter and creativity, only fear, people will not breathe deeply and appreciate where they are with you, there will want to get away from you and what you have created as soon as possible.

In the military my friends told me that you can respect the rank of an officer, or you can respect them as a person. Those that are respected because of their ranks will get efforts from their people. But those who are respected because of who they are often get 100% from their team.

And why is that? It’s because the team can sense the passion, the integrity, the love the leader has for their people, the organisation, their country, or for their family, who they are working to provide for. They are leading from something deeper, a motive that is much bigger than themselves and the fear for their own survival.

One of the strongest of these motives, which can be applied to all contexts, is love.

So how do you lead from love?

What does that look like?

In Part 2, we will be exploring how you can begin to lead from a place of love.

Final thoughts

Before reading Part 2, consider these questions to help you to self reflect:

What and whom do I love?

How do I show it?

Who is the best leader I have experienced and why was that?

Where are the limits of love?

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