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Trust and Fear

August 18, 2009

A recent discussion on the Center for Creative Leadership‘s group on the social networking site LinkedIn asked the question: “Are trust and fear incompatible?”  An ever-expanding body of evidence suggests effective leadership depends on trust, not fear.  But is it the leader’s job to banish or at least minimize fear?

Leaders play an instrumental role in helping people learn and adapt to change.  Because change often requires people to abandon the familiar or comfortable and embark on a journey of discovery that takes them from the known to the unknown (or even the unknowable), it often provokes a sense of anxiety, uncertainty, or even foreboding.

Good leaders understand the stakes, often better than anyone else.  They themselves often experience the same discomfort as those from who they seek support and those to whom they give advice.  As such, how well they deal with their own fears has a powerful effect on the reactions and responses of others to their leadership.

In his 1994 classic, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ron Heifetz contrasts traditional notions of leaders as those who provide orientation, decision, and direction with a more subtle view that requires leaders to establish and maintain a”holding environment” in which people can explore and engage the implications of change at a sustainable pace.  In this holding environment, the leader acknowledges the powerful emotions in play and works with followers to manage the emotional impact of change by moderating the level of stress people experience.  As such, leaders may find it necessary to apply as well as relieve pressure for change.

Effective leaders cannot afford to provoke personal fear in those from whom they hope to gain trust.  By the same token, fear of the unknown plays an instrumental role for the leader and follower alike as they learn from one another how to harness their emotions.

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