Leadership beyond fear

An interview with Margaret Wheatley was published in strategy+business recently. Known for her ground-breaking work ‘Leadership and the New Science’,  Meg expands on her views of what enables Leadership in today’s difficult times. The full interview is here

The interview raises a few points that we at RA would like to explore further.

In times of crisis and austerity, it seems common for organisations to go down the command and control route of management. It feels safe and it feels secure for managers to get a tight rein on their area of responsibility and there is no doubt some truth in this. Unfortunately it also has a profound negative effect. Time and again we experience the fact that ‘squeezing people only makes them smaller’.

What’s needed instead is a releasing of all of the energy, creativity and commitment that every leader has available in each of their employees. This is a courageous response, but it ensures the best chance of success in these demanding and uncertain times.

‘Why is that?’ you may ask. It’s because when we are free of fear we are able to think better.  When we are happier we see more, not just in our minds eye, but in our environment too (1). When we function at our best we can see new connections, find new solutions and create new ways of working that are invisible to the stressed and fearful.

‘What does that mean in my everyday behaviour?’ Leadership is about conversations. As Leaders we succeed or fail one conversation at a time (2). RA have developed a series of tools that help Leaders to have conversations that re-connect the individual with a sense of value, purpose and personal contribution. They are conversations of possibility.

The Wheatley interview draws our attention to a book that explores how some people survive when lost in the wilderness (3). To paraphrase the interview, in these situations: denial and working harder, are followed by a frantic search for the familiar, then a mental and physical deterioration. Sound familiar? Survivors then do something else though; they acknowledge that they are lost and that they need new information – a new way of doing things.

We can get trapped in our habits. Some of our habits were useful once upon a time, but now they are woefully out of date and just hold us back. When we allow our habits to determine our behaviour in this way, we lose the opportunity to think afresh. In times of crisis, unpredictable market conditions and harsh competition, we cannot afford to revert to old ways of thinking. To survive we must look for new information and new ways of doing things. We need to create a new map of the world.

Leaders can be trained to recognise and intervene in out-of-date thinking and stuck behaviour. Developing the listening skills necessary to notice the deep structure of language allows them to interact in a way that enriches the ‘map’ that their team have been operating from. This enables new ideas and innovative solutions to flourish.

Remember though that through thousands of years of evolution we humans have been programmed to scan our environment for anything that is different and to treat anything different as dangerous.  To overcome this primeval response, Leaders must have the influence and presence to calm potential fears. When these concerns are addressed skilfully, the team is then free to access their problem-solving, logical and creative abilities. For Leaders this means communicating from a centred, authentic base, using powerful [and congruent] language and gestures.

The interview with Margaret Wheatley concludes with an observation that a personal discipline is an essential aspect of Leadership in today’s demanding environment. As teachers of the martial arts for many years, we know how important it is to be able to engage in a practise of learning that connects us with ourselves and others. Through our development programmes, we at RA bring this understanding to life in our work with leaders from numerous nations, disciplines and industries.

Mark West
RA: The Leadership Consultants


  1. The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor, 2010
  2. Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott, 2002
  3. Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies and Why, W.W. Norton, 2003
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