What would it look like if the leaders in your organization were truly fearless? What about you? What’s holding you back from being fearless in 2018? Perhaps it’s simply a misunderstanding of what being fearless looks like.
What do you think it means to be “fearless?” You might think “bold,” “daring,” or “heroic.” It may conjure up images of such leaders as Winston Churchill, a leader whose lasting legacy is being celebrated this new year in a blockbuster movie. Or it may bring to mind a leader who is relatively unknown to the world but who inspired you with their humility, their example, and their willingness to take risks and fail.
To understand what it truly means to be a fearless leader, along with some of the ways we inadvertently prevent leaders from giving their best, let me tell you a little story…
Fearless Leaders Ask (and Listen)
I started my career in manufacturing as a frontline supervisor where I experienced firsthand how pressures from all directions can result in beliefs and actions that are anything but fearless. As a matter of fact, I have seen that the majority of the people in any given manufacturing facility are more often fearful than fearless. Fearful of making a mistake, of saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, or, in the worst case, of losing their job if they step out of line.
Anyway, back to my story. I was tasked with forming a team to solve an ergonomic issue with a machine that seriously impacted operator safety. I led a team of engineers that worked diligently to solve the issue. I’ll never forget the moment the team and I stood on the shop floor putting the finishing touches on the plan for our highly engineered (and expensive!) solution when the machine operator hesitantly spoke up. “Nobody asked me, but I don’t understand why you don’t just turn the machine around!”
We looked at each other first with skeptical, then embarrassed grins, thinking “Can it really be that simple?” Twenty minutes later the problem was solved with no capital investment. The answer had been there all along in the mind of this machine operator. Why didn’t we find it earlier?
We didn’t ask.
Why don’t we ask? That is the million-dollar question.
Fearless Leaders Know (That They Don’t Know-It-All)
You see, we thought that fearless leaders are ones who provide solutions to other people’s problems. They don’t ask questions, they answer them! This isn’t the kind of leader people really want to follow. Being fearless means you are a humble, servant-minded leader who isn’t afraid to trust others to come up with their own ideas, to replace your ideas with better ones that are truly owned by the team. If you are a fearless leader your team knows they can speak up, give great ideas, and help make their work better without the fear of being shot down or ridiculed. This holds true from the executive leadership team to frontline leaders in your organization.
Keep this in mind: a leader is paid to get results, not have all the answers.
It isn’t always easy—becoming fearless pushes leaders beyond their comfort zone. Most leaders believe they get paid to be the one who know what to do next in any given situation, but a team of (informed) minds will almost always outperform one person. That has been proven over and over again.
Fearless leaders are empathetic, respectful, humble, open-minded and caring. They accept and recognize the fact that they don’t know everything and strive to develop a team of “thinkers” that contribute to the organization. A fearless leader certainly has fears, but they face their fears head-on and learn, develop and grow.
Fearless Leaders Fear (and Overcome!)
In 2018 I’d encourage you to consider nominating a leader who embodies these leadership qualities for the Fearless Frontline Leader Award. This award was inspired by the fearless leadership of a Plant Superintendent named Mike Stilwell. He’s a perfect example of a fearless frontline leader. Did it come easily for him? Not at all. To begin with, he didn’t see himself as a great leader. One of his most prominent fears was his fear of public speaking. I worked with Mike to help him overcome this fear—first with his own team, and later when presenting to executives. The fact that he had to push through his fears didn’t mean he was a weak leader. On the contrary, his courage to grow was part of what made him one of the most inspiring examples of a fearless leader I’ve ever known.
Fearless leaders have the same fears as the rest of us—but they face them head-on. May 2018 be the year you face and overcome your fears. Be fearless!
About the author: Rich Cary is the Director of Education for Definity Partners, a business improvement firm focused on helping companies win together by developing people and driving improvement. He is the creator of a Frontline Leader Course that has inspired nearly 1000 leaders since 2016 to be servant leaders that engage their teams by being fearless. You can contact Rich through his LinkedIn profile page.