Be a Better Leader in 5 Minutes

Knife or Screwdriver

Picture yourself sitting down at a dining room table to change the batteries in a child’s toy. You flip the toy upside down and discover that a small screw fastens the panel you need to open to get at the batteries. On your table is a butter knife with a thin edge. Across the house, in your garage, is a small screwdriver that’s just the right size for this screw.

Which tool would you use: the knife or the screwdriver?

Don’t feel bad if you chose the knife – I’ve certainly unscrewed my fair share of screws using a knife.

Do You Use the Easiest Leadership Tool?

If you chose the knife, you used it because it was easy. It was available and you could get the job done right away. The negative consequences of using the knife (blunted edge, stripped screws, and cutting your hand – all of which I’ve done) were of less concern than the ease of opening that battery compartment right away.

As a motivational tool, fear is a lot like that butter knife: easy, accessible, and less work right now than the alternatives. Fear is easy because it comes naturally and it’s accessible because most of us learned it at an early age.

While we like to think of ourselves as rational beings, the truth is that the more primitive and emotional parts of our brain act first and powerfully when we make decisions.

Watch any advertising and you’ll quickly see the dominant themes: wealth, power, security, status, fear, safety, and sex. These themes appeal to the emotional part of your brain. Then the advertisers follow up with something to help your intellect rationalize the purchase.

In the United States, there is a saying among so many mothers that it is nearly cliché: “I’m your mother – I brought you into this world and I can take you out!” While it’s often said tongue-in-cheek, many children grow up understanding that failure to do what is required will result in harsh consequences. Moreover, far too many children grow up in homes where fear is more than just a constructive disciplinary tool, but a visceral part of a life spent trying to survive abusive or alcoholic parents.

Once you arrived at school or the playground, you likely encountered other children and teachers who relied on fear. Unfortunately, you can find bullies in the schoolyard and the classroom. By your teenage years, you likely encountered teachers and other children who relied on fear of punishment, fear of rejection, or fear of pain to get compliance.

I don’t mean to judge these parents, teachers, and childhood peers for their use of fear. Too often, their own upbringing, insecurity, or sense of powerlessness caused them to use fear. That’s not an excuse, but it is a reality.

The point is: we learn fear early in our lives. It is hardwired into our brains and reinforced from an early age.

No wonder it comes so easily to so many leaders.

The Price of Fear

When you motivate with fear, you cause a predictable response in your team members: fight, flight, or freeze.

Their goal is then to do the least possible to get out of the situation. For some, this means fighting back, for others this means giving their minimal effort, and still others simply freeze when confronted with fear and anger.

None of these responses give you the results you want - a energized, productive, problem-solving team.

How to Be a Better Leader in 5 Minutes

Returning to the toy - if you want to avoid cutting your hand, stripping the screw, and blunting your knife, the answer is straightforward:  Get up, walk to the garage, and use the screwdriver.

If you want to be a better leader in five minutes, take that five minutes to analyze the situation and choose the best leadership tool for the job at hand.

"It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail." -Abraham Maslow

As a leader, do you have a good set of tools in your leadership toolbox?

If you fall into the leadership traps of using fear or doing everything yourself, it's time to get new tools!

You can acquire new tools as you continue to read Lead Change Group, subscribe to my blog, or seek out a leadership coach.

Your Turn

Leave us a comment and let us know:

How do you avoid using easy, but less effective, tools like fear?

Note: This post is adapted from my new book The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say. If you'd like practical leadership tools with immediate results, you can find the book on my website or Amazon.

Take care,

David Dye

Creative Commons Photo Credit: sunnyUK

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