The Greatest Fear Effective Leaders Have

When I teach coaching skills for leaders, I do a demonstration for the participants so they can see how the skills fit together into a coaching conversation. I always ask for a volunteer who has an issue to resolve concerning a person at work.

No matter where I am in the world, the block to resolving their problem is steeped in the same fear. I am convinced that this is the greatest fear even effective leaders have, and it keeps them from doing what they know is right.

If I can’t fix the problem person, I am a bad leader.

Businesswoman holding her head with cartoon hammer and chisel in background

Parents are also plagued by this fear, that if their child messes up, it is their fault. Sometimes this is true. Other times there are many factors that played into the child’s behavior and decisions, such as the need to be accepted by peers, faulty lessons learned from teachers, coaches or other authority figures, and miscalculating outcomes.

From my own experiences, I know teachers and coaches fear this, too. If I can’t help the person see the light, I have shirked my responsibilities and failed at my role.

I am going to focus on leaders. You can apply this situation to other scenarios as you see fit.

The conversation starts with the leader I am coaching defining a situation where the person is not performing. When I ask the leader what he or she has done so far, the person lays out a list of things he has tried. When I ask, “Honestly, have you done everything you could, doing the best you can with what you know?” the person says there must be something else that hasn’t been tried. I sense an unwillingness to give up as if giving up on changing someone always means failure.

This position is honorable; looking around for new things to try shows commitment. It can also be a waste of good energy.

It is possible the leader is so concerned with doing the right thing to change the person’s mind, he or she isn’t listening enough to know what the person really wants or needs to move forward. Sometimes people feel so betrayed, disappointed, or disillusioned by you or others that they can’t do their best their work or focus on personal development. The best you can do is ask, sometimes more than once, what it would take for them to feel differently. Fully hearing, allowing, and accepting their point of view could be what they need to begin to move out of their rut. Maybe then you can find a way forward together.

It is also possible problem people have no desire to change right now. They are not willing to try on new behaviors and they don’t see a payoff for making the changes you want them to make. If you are a leader and the problem person works with other people, keeping them could be toxic to the team no matter how good they are at doing their own jobs. You have to weigh the impact the person is having on everyone else with the cost of finding someone new. Which is the greater loss? What is the right thing to do for all?

Some people must find their own way, and their way may be somewhere else.

If that is the case, you aren’t a bad leader. You are a conscious leader aware of the needs and challenges people are facing. You have done your best.

So how do you know if there is something else to do or it is time to quit trying?

Consider taking these steps to more realistically assess the situation:

  • Quit “doing to” the person, trying to make him or her change. Ask and listen deeply to what the person wants and needs. Accept these wants and needs without judgment, and then share what you can do to help get these needs met and what is out of your hands to do.

If you can’t find a way to compromise or support their requests,

  1. Assess what is acceptable behavior as people have different rates of change and growth. Not everyone will be converts and jump to make the changes you think are good. What is an acceptable rate of change for this situation? What is the bottom line of waiting time you can tolerate before the person demonstrates willingness to at least take one step forward?
  2. Determine what is unacceptable and what you will do when you must accept that you have tried and they won’t budge.
  3. Let go of the possibility that you can change the person’s mind and behavior. Take the necessary action. Then focus on people actually doing their jobs. They need your attention. You will get more of a return on your investment of time and energy spending time with your best and committed employees.

Some people will see the light. You will feel good about that. Others will remain in the dark. They are not ready now or they will never be willing to do what you think is right. What makes them happy and fulfilled is somewhere else. If you have done your best, let yourself know this and move on. Your wonderful energy is needed elsewhere.

That is what makes you a good leader.

If you would like to have me speak at your upcoming event or talk about leadership training and coaching, please reach to me at:

Marcia Reynolds

tel:+1 602 954 9030

4 thoughts on “The Greatest Fear Effective Leaders Have”

  1. Marcia, thank you. Your words ring so true. As leaders we are so often placed or accept positions where we are expected to “fix” things. Often this mindset spills into a desire or need or belief that we should “fix” people. Our past of fixing things often leads to promotions and greater organizational responsibility. So, we continue to do what worked. But, as we know, people are not things. They are unique and, as you suggest, we need to meet them where they are. Thank you for the reminder to listen, really listen, as a coach would and not as “the leader who fixes things.”

    1. Matt, it’s so true that “fixing” is embedded in our brains. It makes us feel important and needed, and is often just a habit. It is far more powerful to help remove the blocks so people can fix things on their own. What a gift we can give people!

  2. Great post. The first failure “leaders” have is ignoring unacceptable behavior or using passive aggressive statements in the hope that someone will change. Sigh. I have observed that far too often.
    You have offered up a great design for a courageous leader to engage in meaningful conversation.

    One other thought. I believe the leader always needs to ask if what is considered “poor performance” is merely “different from the norm”. Example, some organizations are still so hide-bound that going against the accepting procedure is considered poor performance. In their masterful book, The Power of Positive Deviance, the authors cite a case where a global pharmaceutical company was introducing a new drug that required very different protocol than another drug. The sales were disappointing EXCEPT in one region where the two female sales reps actually taught physicians’ staff HOW to administer the drug. Unfortunately, the top-down protocol for its sales force did not allow for such teaching moments. In fact, the two sales reps were accused of falsifying information.

    Their positive deviance could have been replicated but the organization was too rigid in its process to consider an alternative methodology.

    Just something to consider. Maybe the difficult conversation is within one’s self.

    1. Great thoughts Eileen. Looking at what forms our judgments of people and what rules say “I don’t trust you” are critical actions for leaders to take on a regular basis, even when things are going well! I appreciate you bringing these ideas to the discussion.

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