The Fearless Executive

During my 2014 research interviews with executive team members across a wide range of sectors, I met many leaders who are able to manage their personal fears and so don't put up defences in the form of dysfuntional behaviour.

An interesting question is:

How are they able to do this, when some of those they have worked with in their careers have allowed fear to trigger dysfunctional behaviour? 

Based on my interpretation of the interviews, I believe there are six reasons why many leaders are able to manage their fears:

  1. They feel confident it is no longer possible for them to experience what was once their deepest fear and so now have a sense of inner security.  For example, one interviewee had early in her career a dominant fear of regression to the poor economic surroundings of her childhood.  Now later in her career she knows she has the financial buffer and confidence that this is very unlikely to happen, so as she won’t now experience her once deepest fear, all other fear seems insignificant.
  2.  One interviewee commented “I think (over time) they (people) get more conscious of their fears, I think they also develop more coping strategies for their fears.”  So awareness of ones fears might lead to better coping mechanisms being developed.
  3. They have the ability to be aware of the organisational games being played and can dissociate themselves from these games whist at work and so are less likely to get infected by any fear or dysfunctional behaviour that might be present within the executive team.   As one interviewee put it: “My relationship with this place is not that intense.”
  4.  “Guys compromise their values because they are the bread winners” commented an interviewee.  What they were saying was that ‘bread winners’ need to play by the organisation’s rules and this might lead them to compromise their values.  In part there may be truth in their comment, but I expect that if an organisation has healthy values, then executives should be able to live to their core values.  Thus, potentially lower anxiety levels may result and the fears that drive dysfunctional behaviour not being given the opportunity to surface.
  5. They have above-average personal insights into their own behaviour and this self-knowledge might help reconcile fears.  One executive commented on their repeated sense of being an impostor due to their rapid promotions: “The competent me would never be able to catch up with the incompetent me.  I bring who I am.  I have been comfortable being uncomfortable.  It’s all about the ride as much as the destination.”
  6. I believe moral identity is another factor, meaning those who have a high moral identity see morality as key to who they are, so to act immorally (or dysfunctionally) would be a kind of self-betrayal.   DeCelles, DeRue, Margolis and Ceranic (2012) propose that “the psychological experience of power, although often associated with promoting self-interest, is associated with greater self-interest only in the presence of a weak moral identity.”  They go on to say: "The psychological experience of power enhances moral awareness among those with a strong moral identity, yet decreases the moral awareness among those with a weak moral identity. In turn, individuals’ moral awareness affects how they behave in relation to their self-interest.

(Article references available on request)

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