Once upon a time I worked in an organization for a leader who was scared to death.
He was frightened that the industry was falling apart, that the competition would eat us alive, that various agencies, attorneys and disloyal employees were circling in the skies overhead waiting to pounce on us if we made the slightest mistake.
So, he led from fear, and frightened the entire organization. He tried to control everything, from the big decisions to the trivial decisions. He would reverse course on a whim, on a fragment of information, on instinct. He would bark orders and make disparaging comments about any alternative course of action. He cut spending, because the first thing a frightened person does is hoard resources. He watched every move his subordinates made, because a scared person stops trusting anyone but himself.
After a while, people just gave up and did what he told them to do, no matter how silly it was. They followed the common wisdom, “keep your heads down.”
But while they talked behind the leader’s back about how absurd things had become, those subordinate executives were just as scared as the guy on the top. They were afraid of saying or doing anything that could cause them to disappear overnight into the black hole of outplacement. They had much to lose in terms of income, status and security, so they said nothing, implemented initiatives they knew were misguided and suppressed any opposing urges.
Because they all bought into the fear, they stopped trusting each other. Now they were all in competition for a scarce resource based on the logic, “He can’t fire us all.” In turn, they stopped trusting their subordinates, because they knew that no matter how innocent the mistake made by an underling, the leader would come down on their heads like a guillotine.
Eventually the leader’s fear translated into meaningless, random staff reductions that were little more than self-fulfilling prophecies of doom and justified by the macho restorative, “sometimes you have to make the tough calls.” Fear intensified and spread throughout the organization and even beyond. Because while the executives were cutting staff, they followed the logic of rightsizing and continued to hire people. Unfortunately for them, word had gotten around that this wasn’t the safest place to work, and only the underskilled and desperate bothered to apply. The organization lived on the fumes of past success for a while, then was mercifully put to sleep by an investment firm that gutted it for what was usable, which by that time, wasn’t much at all.
Once upon a time . . . don’t I wish. I’ve seen this pattern repeated over and over in every industry and it will never end as long as insecure leaders obsessed with personal survival forget their responsibility to the people they lead.