I see an intriguing riddle with leadership. Let me give you two observations from my consulting and research:

  1. I have yet to meet a leader or boss who does not want to have a positive influence on the people they lead
  2. Past research points to the conclusion that the majority of leaders or bosses are poor leaders. Consider the following statistics:

Why is it so common that leaders’ best intentions and efforts are commonly destructive?

The Three Common Fears that is at the Root of Poor Leadership

I have been doing a lot of coaching lately, and I am identifying a common theme that helps explain the riddle above. At the root of these themes is the same thing: fear. What I am learning is that it is possible for leaders to be well-intended, but when they get into a place of fear, they end up engaging in thinking and behaviors that are simultaneously self-protective AND destructive for those that they lead.

Let me share a few of the common fears with you.

First, leaders are afraid of failure.

When leaders are afraid of failure, they:

  • Are rigid
  • Are uncomfortable thinking outside the box and trying new or innovative things
  • Tend to micromanage
  • Operate as more of a command-and-control leader
  • Are focused on more on how others see them than on doing great work
  • Care more about how their superiors perceive them than about how their subordinates see them
  • Are generally are more style than substance

Second, leaders are afraid of problems.

When leaders are afraid of problems, they:

  • Need to be in control
  • Are very cautious
  • Tend to micromanage
  • Hold tightly to what has made them successful in the past and unwilling to try new ways of doing things
  • Are short-tempered
  • Come down strongly on those who make mistakes

businessman with megaphone

Third, leaders are afraid of not being valued.

When leaders are afraid of not being valued, they:

  • Are reluctant to speak up or be direct
  • Struggle to hold people accountable
  • Hoard credit and are slow to give it to others
  • Have a hard time delegating to others
  • Don’t draw healthy boundaries (i.e., they say “yes” to everything)
  • Have a hard time staying balanced
  • Assume the negative

I think most leaders have these fears to a certain degree. And, even if a leader has these fears to a significant degree, it doesn’t mean that they are a bad leader 100% of the time. But, what I am learning is that in order to generate the poor leadership statistics above, leaders only need to be disruptive 5%-10% of the time.

Stated differently, what I am finding is that leaders that are considered “poor” by those that they lead, are generally good leaders. But, there are a minority of instances that they struggle to handle well because of one of these fears above.

What Explains Why Leaders Have These Characteristics

What I am learning is that there is a correlation between how tightly leaders hold on to their fears and their window of tolerance.

The more afraid a leader is of failure, having problems, and not being valued, they easier it is for them to feel threatened. This creates the following chain reaction:

  1. Leader feels threatened (there is a chance for failure, problems, or losing face)
  2. Their nervous system can’t process this well and they are sent outside their window of tolerance and move into fight, flight, or freeze mode
  3. They do not think very effectively (they become self- and short-term focused)
  4. They behave in negative, resistant, and protective ways

Generally, when a leader is thrown outside their window of tolerance, they end up having a negative impact on those they are working with in that instance. The more these instances occur, the worse the leader is perceived, and the less effective they are.

man scared

What Does This Mean for Leadership Development?

If we recognize that the root of poor leadership comes from the intertwined relationship between fears and a low window of tolerance, this suggests that leadership developers need to focus on:

  1. Loosening their grip on their fears
  2. Expanding their window of tolerance

But, these are things that are rarely focused on in leadership development programs. Most leadership development programs focus on, what is called, horizontal development. Horizontal development is about helping leaders gain more knowledge, skills, and competencies. It is like downloading an app on an iPad, it helps the iPad do more than what it what it could do previously. But, generally the addition of an app doesn’t prevent the iPad from shutting down when it becomes overheated.

If we want to help leaders loosen their grip on their fears and expand their window of tolerance, we need to focus on vertical development. Vertical development is all about helping leaders work through their fears and heal their minds so that they don’t shut down when they become overheated. It is like upgrading the iPad’s internal operating system.

If you want to learn more about vertical development, download my Vertical Leadership Development White Paper.

If you would like some assistance helping your leaders vertically develop, please let me know. I would be happy to help.