Fear Rules: Part III

The Scream — Edvard Munch

In Part I, I established the central importance of managing fear of self and team in the success of every leader. In Part II, I illustrated the management of a leader’s own fear with Paul Polman, transformative ex-CEO of Unilever and the management of a team’s fear with Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, the turnaround CEO of Lego. The successful surmounting of fear by Polman and Knudstorp, and others who I have studied, suggests five Fear Rules for leaders in order to manage fear to a level that is motivating and not paralyzing.

Rule One: Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Freedom

Fear is not something that can be eliminated. It is always lurking. It is a human instinct that is there to protect us. Even though there was little fear at Lego in the decade before 2003, it reached a fevered pitch in the space of one year. Watch for it as it rises in you or your team. If you are telling yourself, or hearing members of your team telling themselves, exculpatory stories of why you or they are accepting a miserable situation, then you know fear has already risen to a level that it is creating real organizational damage. Dealing with it is urgent business — not something that can be put off. Fear generates actions that produce more fear and an acceleration of the damage. When it comes to fear, now is the time to work on it.

Rule Two: Your Fear is Job #1

When flight attendants make their standard safety announcements before takeoff, they remind parents to put on their own oxygen masks first before they do so for their children. The reason for the reminder is, of course, that while parents’ first instinct may be to help their children, if they run out of breath and faint before finishing that task, they wouldn’t be terribly useful to those children. So put your own mask on first and then get busy helping your loved ones!

Identically for leaders, they won’t be able to help their team overcome their fear if they are overcome themselves. Hence the Fear Rule for leaders is to work on overcoming your own fear yourself before you even think about attempting to manage the fear of your team. And if you can’t generate a positive narrative to help you overcome your own fear, you should step aside because you are incapable of productive leadership at that critical time.

Rule Three: The Basis of Fear is a Narrative

Fear is generated by stories we tell ourselves. We take data-points and assemble them into narratives that help us understand the world. It isn’t a bad thing. It is what we do. We are most comfortable with and motivated by information in story form.

But sometimes, we assemble those data-points into scary stories. Lego is running out of cash and that means bankruptcy is around the corner. It is no surprise: it is the classic third generation jinx in action. Unilever has lost its mojo and investors are mad as hell. They aren’t interested in the long term. They don’t believe that we can afford sustainability. We can’t let them know exactly what is going on inside Unilever or they will be furious about what they hear. And we certainly can’t take responsibility for the entire value chain — we can’t even manage ourselves. Basically, if we don’t do everything to please them, they will abandon us entirely and we will be finished — like an abandoned orphan child.

As a leader, you must understand each person’s story to understand every person’s fear because their narrative drives their actions. If you don’t understand the story, you won’t understand the fear. Additionally, if you deny the story, you send the fear underground where it is harder to counteract.

Rule Four: The Antidote for Fear is a Happy Story

To conquer fear, a leader needs to craft a compellingly happy story. That narrative needs to build a bridge for the organization from the scary story to a happier place. If it is entirely independent of the scary story, it won’t be credible and compelling.

Knudstorp reframed the Lego story into a happy narrative. Indeed, Lego had overextended itself and that created an existential threat. But the brand was still strong, and the family had recognized the wisdom of turning to company over to professional management. By getting back to basics and selling some non-core assets, Lego could achieve the breathing room necessary to rebuild its momentum and profitability.

Polman reframed the Unilever story. Yes, it was underperforming, but it was a sleeping giant. Sure, some investors cared only about the short-term but there were investors interested in the long term that had abandoned Unilever because it had acted as though the long term didn’t matter. They could be attracted back. Sure, investors were worried about wasting corporate resources on social responsibility. However, Unilever from its founding had been a leader in social responsibility and it had been a competitive strength; Unilever could return to that positioning. While it was true that investors had gotten mad at the company when it had to reveal bad news — but that was because Unilever hadn’t been transparent with them before having to reveal the bad news. If Unilever was way more transparent, investors would worry less, and it would be less risky for Unilever. And if Unilever took responsibility for its whole value chain risk would fall rather than rise.

Both reframed the scary story as a set of data points that could be migrated to a happy narrative and reduced fear to a level that enabled employees to work with enthusiasm. But of course, Knudstorp and Polman had to overcome their own fear by telling themselves a happy story of their ability to lead their respective organizations in a way that caused the happy story to become true — and both were able to do just that.

Rule Five: Tell the Happy Story Over and Over

In the face of the fearful story, it takes the happy story some time to sink in and truly replace the fearful story as the dominant narrative. The replacement doesn’t happen with one telling. For this reason, it is critical to keep reinforcing the happy story until it, not the fearful one that preceded it, is second nature. For leaders, this means telling the happy story until they are absolutely sick of hearing themselves talk. Only then is it likely to be the core story across their organization.

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Neither the world nor any organization in it can be stripped entirely of fear. It is a naturally occurring aspect of life on the planet. Some amount of it is motivational. But too much is counterproductive, even debilitating. A key task of leaders is to recognize as and when fear has risen to an intense enough level in themselves and their teams to take action — first by managing their own fear and then by managing their teams’ fears. While they don’t have to become Han Solo or James Bond, theirs is the same effect on others that they should be looking to achieve.

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Roger Martin

Professor Roger Martin is a writer, strategy advisor and in 2017 was named the #1 management thinker in world. He is also former Dean of the Rotman School.