For over 20 years I have had the privilege of working with and learning from senior executives. Some of the most interesting insights I’ve received came during late night drinks and in dark steak houses. And having strung many of these interactions together I have become a self-taught student of leadership and fear. In both cases, one thing is for certain: we are our own worst enemy; we are what most holds us back.
Having moved to Colorado to start an office for a national consultancy and having started my own business several years ago, I too had to deal with, and overcome, some fears. I suppose mine were based on what people would think of me if I failed. What would my mother think? What would the people whom I left at my last job think? What would my wife and kids think? After all, I left a very good job to do something most people dream about but never do once they look over the cliff. And to make the drop that much larger I decided to do it during one of the worst, if not the worst, time in the last 100 years. The catalyst to overcome a fear 45 years in the making finally happened over a dinner that went wrong with two colleagues.
For years I had turned over in my mind three questions and that night became ashamed of my answers.
1. When will I be old enough to stop caring about what other people think? Not the ones that matter but the ones that don’t.
2. Will I regret, when reflecting on my life at 60 or 65 or 68, not having tried because I was afraid?
3. If I pronounced to my children that they could grow up to be anything, to do anything, shouldn’t I believe it myself?
I have friends, colleagues, and clients who once promoted forget how to make decisions. The irony is that many were promoted because they took risks, they made decisions, and more often than not (and more often than their peers) they were right. Leadership saw in them someone who could help the enterprise move forward. Someone with bold thinking and the balls to take action. But now, having achieved the status they worked so hard to achieve, they hide in hopes of hanging onto their job, afraid to make decisions for fear of making a mistake. They become paralyzed.
I’ve seen CEOs hang on to a terrible employee out of fear. Everyone sees the employee for the bully they are, or how they blame others for their shortcomings yet this leader fears the loss of the resource. Maybe they drive sales, or maybe they have some strength that seems to outweigh their deficiencies. But ultimately, they harm the culture, piss off the employees, and make the leader look weak and foolish.
These leaders lose their jobs because they stop doing their jobs.
It’s equally remarkable talking to people when their confidence returns. Lousy employees get replaced with much better ones and leaders wonder why they didn’t make the change sooner. Executives who find their voice again also find balance within themselves and the organizations in which they work. They are renewed, motivated, and more eager to take risks.
There are always reasons why things happen and why we behave as we do. Justifying them and discussing them is an important part of the decision making process. But, it can go on too long. In the end, you’ve either got to get right with what you have or you have to change it.
By Rob Novick, Managing Partner