Author: Kamena, Gene
Date published: January 1, 2012
"You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do."
- Eleanor Roosevelt
Every leader possesses a motivating spark-the energy that drives a leader forward and determines how the unique characteristics and traits possessed by that leader are actually brought to bear. When the spark of leadership is lit, by a desire for making things happen and for making a difference in the lives of others, regardless of personal cost, the outcome is usually positive for all involved. Unfortunately, some leaders today are motivated by fear; fear of failing, fear of making a mistake, fear of what others might think. . .fear of being wrong. This article is directed to those leaders residing in this category, with the intent of calling them out, having them examine their actions, and most importantly, reappraising their motivational spark.
If you have been in, or around, the military for any length of time, you know the kind of leader I am writing about. They are overly cautious, test the environment before acting, are risk averse, and all too often, they are rewarded for not making waves. One might assume fearbased leadership is most prominent in junior leaders, and that time and maturity would remedy this deficit of character. My personal experience and observations indicate 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 to the task. 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 environments that do not allow for creativity or mistakes; zero-defect atmospheres become the genesis of fear-based leaders. 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? Action is required at several levels. Our military services must value appropriate risk-taking; this requires more than just words. Risk-takers must actually 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 leaders who always play it safe, often to the detriment of the mission or progress, then the message will spread quickly- the message that it is OK, and actually valued, to go out on a limb from time to time. Fear-based leaders can do much to self-correct their own behavior. If reading this short article causes you to question your own actions, then it achieved its purpose. If you find yourself overly cautious, then ask yourself a question-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. When fear-based leaders peer into the looking glass, they see only half a person: one who plays it safe and risks nothing. Motivation does matter; in fact, it matters a lot. What type of leader do you see in the mirror?
Professor Gene C. Kamena currently teaches Leadership and Ethics at the Air War College in Montgomery, Ala. He is retired from the Army as a Colonel of infantry. He holds a B.A. in History from Auburn University and a Masters Degree in Military Art and Science from CGSC at Fort Leavenworth. He graduated from the Army War College in 1998 and commanded the 2nd Brigade, 1AD. He also served as the chief of staff for the 1st Infantry Division, director of staff of U.S. Space Command and the deputy chief of staff for U.S. Northern Command, director for Iraqi Security Forces and formed and led an Iraqi special border commando brigade on the Syrian border. His operational deployments include; Desert Shield Desert Storm, Macedonia, Kosovo, and Iraq (OIF.)