Bob's Gutsy Leadership Blog

Fear: The Great Debilitator!

I am reading the book Tombstone, by Yang Jisheng, whose father was one of the thirty-six million people that starved to death during 1958-1962 in China.  The devastation was driven by the program called the Great Leap Forward engineered by Mao Zedong.  The leap forward was to achieve increases each year in food production, since food was scarce.  Quotas were set up in each village and county and continually raised, while all peasants were stripped of their land and possessions and assigned to highly ineffective commune farms where chaos caused the food production to drop each year.  Peasants were to eat at commune kitchens, which soon ran out of food.  Anyone caught hoarding any food suffered severe physical punishment.

Why was the starving not reported up the chain of command so problems could be addressed?  Here is the core reason in the author’s words:

Mao’s words sealed the lips of the government officials running the villages, counties, and provinces.  Whoever claimed peasants lacked food was taking the wrong viewpoint, and if a government official took the wrong viewpoint, his political future was finished.  Hence, during the three year famine following the winter of1958, government officials not only failed to plead on behalf of starving peasants, but even said they had plenty of food.

When folks are fearful of a leader, the organization goes into a horrible stagnation, and the leader is typically blind to the negative impact he or she is having.  No problems are tackled and people work to stay off the radar screen of the leader.

What are the things a leader does to create fear?  Here are some deadly ones you should carefully avoid:

1.) Criticizing Individuals Publically:  This sends a message which spreads quickly in the organization that your reputation is at risk unless you keep your head low.  Don’t take any risks or convey bad news.

2.) Promoting Those Who Always Agree/Praise You:  The troops immediately spot those people who are constantly “buttering up” the boss.  When they see such people being promoted, it is time to either duck or get out.

3.) Rushing One-on-One Meetings and Not Listening:  Such behavior sends an immediate signal that the boss doesn’t put a very high value on you or your work and is certainly not anxious to learn of problems and possible solutions.

Besides avoiding these three things, it is critical to spend time at the low levels of the organization,  talking and observing the work that is going on and constantly asking where the problems/opportunities are and how they can be fixed/pursued.


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