Overcoming the Fear to Lead

In: BlogDate: Dec 07, 2020By: Billy Burgess

Kill Your Fear With Servant Leadership: How a 1970s essay can help you do this and become happier too. 

Servant Leadership is an approach very close to what we at Happy believe to be the role of leaders in an organisation. Here is a guest blog from Alex Holland on the subject.

Overcoming the Fear to Lead

“I’ll give my heart and soul to this as long as I don’t have to lead it.” I heard variations of this time and again when I was a Councillor in Brixton trying to help local community campaigns.

People would be angry about a local issue, like property developers trying to turn a pub into yet more flats. There would be a groundswell of support to do something about it. Normally one or two people would put themselves forward to coordinate things. Then a fear that seemed to kick in; the fear of leading.

Without leadership these campaigns rarely worked. They lacked the focus needed, energies became split in many directions and the people they were seeking to bring pressure to in the council or a property developer didn’t feel the heat.

The Fear to Lead

I’ve been privileged to do an MProf in Leadership for Sustainable Change with Forum for the Future as well as give sessions for aspiring leaders at the Advocacy Academy. The brilliant people involved in both shared their fear of leading.

A common theme was that they cared about things they were willing to fight for but the prospect of actually leading them filled them with a massive fear. This was a fear of being held responsible for everything that might happen, and everything that might go wrong.

I had my own worries and doubts about leading the campaign to stop Brixton market getting knocked down, or standing to become a local government councillor. Then I read something that helped me realise why in the end I’d been able to overcome those fears to go for it:

‘Who is the enemy? Who is holding back more rapid movement to the better society that is reasonable and possible with available resources? Who is responsible for the mediocre performance of so many of our institutions? Who is standing in the way of a larger consensus on the definition of the better society and paths to reaching it? Not evil people. Not stupid people. Not apathetic people. 'Not the system.'

“The real enemy is fuzzy thinking on the part of good, intelligent, vital people, and their failure to lead, and to follow servants as leaders.”’

Servant as Leader

Those quotes are taken from the essay Servant as Leader by Robert Greenleaf written in 1970. The son of a mechanic from Terre Haute Indiana, Greeneleaf ended up working for almost 40 years in management training for the US telecoms giant AT&T. He quit in 1964 to write and teach about things like Servant Leadership.

Greenleaf described a servant leader as someone who put service to a greater cause or enterprise ahead of their own desire for status or ego. Greenleaf said, "The servant-leader is servant first… It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead."

I think this is a powerful formula to help you overcome the fear of leading. It does this by placing the focus of leadership away from you as a person and towards the cause and people you are serving. That rather than your choice to lead being about your ego, your choice not to lead becomes so. If you don’t lead change for the better then in Greenleaf’s words people “suffer. Society suffers. And so it may be in the future.”

Those of you who’ve been involved in activism, worked in the charity sector, or in any especially driven working environment may be thinking that such focus on ‘service’ can lead to people getting burned-out through the zeal for their noble work. This is where another key part of Servant as Leader comes in.

Greenleaf argues that those who serve the cause must become healthier, wiser, freer and more autonomous by doing so. For me that includes the leaders themselves, who cannot become an exhausted martyr if they are truly going to serve the greater cause and those who would follow it.

As Greenleaf admits, getting this balance right isn’t easy. I believe it is worth it, partly because there is tremendous joy in doing so. Whether leading a voluntary campaign or a team in the workplace.

During my MProf in Leadership for Sustainable Change I was fortunate enough to do work placements with the Responsible Investment part of Aviva and the sustainability department at Telefonica O2. The leaders of both teams were great examples of servant leaders.

Gareth Rice’s team at O2 were supporting and further developing the company’s already impressive efforts in what it was trying to do for the environment. One way Gareth served his people was by helping them collectively agree a fair share of what they called ‘diamond’ and ‘coal’ tasks. Diamond tasks were more creative, rewarding and empowering while coal were more dull, rote and tedious.

Because one person’s diamond might be another person’s coal, this split of tasks were collectively negotiated and agreed. People on the O2 sustainability team said this fair share of fun, combined with fighting for the environment, made working with Gareth their best workplace experience so far.

Before going to work at Aviva I was told by my supervisor at Forum for the Future not to do anything to upset Steve Waygood as he was ‘a rockstar of sustainable finance’ and the most connected man in that area. He’d created and led one of the most successful green investment teams in the City, which had the ability to influence the investment decisions of more than £200 billion of Aviva’s money. You could say that Steve would be entitled to a towering ego.

But for me, that wasn’t the case. While Steve was very charismatic and confident, he was also a real servant leader. One example stood out when I was working on a strategic communications project for his team. I felt we would better communicate our Steve’s policy ideas for more sustainable capital markets if we changed the term ‘stewardship’ to ‘Responsible Investment’.

Steve appeared very attached to the term ‘stewardship’ having championed it in numerous public articles and speeches. It could be seen as his concept, and another person might have seen changing the term as diminishing him as a leader. When I tentatively suggested the change to him he accepted it without a moment’s hesitation.

When I said I was surprised he had done so, he looked at me and replied, “Do you think saying ‘Responsible Investment’ will make our case more effectively?” I said yes. He smiled warmly, “Well, let’s go with it then. What next?” And with that, we moved on.

When I created my own start-up, the world’s first Tea Pub, I recalled this moment when members of the team suggested we change the name of the business. Rather than thinking one name was ‘mine’ and another ‘theirs’, I tried to think about what would work best for those we were trying to serve, our customers, crew and the tea growers. I realised they were right and accepted their idea.

Change for the better cannot happen without leadership, and I would argue servant leadership. If you are thinking “Who am I to lead?” then ask yourself is what you’re leading for in service of a greater cause? Will those who follow learn, grow and develop by doing so? If the answer is yes to both then I urge you to go for it, as you may find not only you overcome the fear of doing so, but greater happiness too.

Alex Holland is the founder of Merlin Branding and SolarPunk Stories.

The Greenleaf Centre for Servant-Leadership UK

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