Is fear driving your leadership style?

As human beings, we can sense a threat, and our natural instincts are to react from our emotions. We live with constant uncertainty. Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow. But as a leader in a crisis, the consequences of getting it wrong are very high for you, your team and your organization.

If fear is the emotion that drives you, that’s how you will lead. For many leaders the instinct is to project an aura of toughness, hiding their real level of concern. But hiding behind a veil of toughness won’t prevent your personal fears from manifesting in your leadership style.

Fears impact your self-confidence, your courage, and your stamina to push through. If you suppress your fears and their accompanying emotions, rather than leading with authenticity, you end up creating the facade that everything is OK. 

You also fail to realize what your team members are going through. Remember you are not the only one with fears!

In his book Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman introduces two systems of thinking that drive human response to stimuli. System 1 is Reactive Thinking. And it kicks in when you respond based on the amygdala, the area of the brain that triggers the impulsive, emotional response.

Environmental stimuli received through the senses – what you see, hear, touch, taste, smell – enter the amygdala first. 

Rather than thoughtfully processing what is coming into your brain, we make quick reactive decisions about what you believe is happening and what we need to do or say. 

Often stimuli evoke emotional responses based on  prior experiences, biases, or assumptions. The  amygdala is the most primitive part of the brain. It was critical for survival for our ancestors, who needed this limbic brain function to respond quickly to physical threats. 

But allowing the amygdala to rule our decisions and thought processes can lead to trouble. 

Here’s how this may play out. You have completed a DISC behavioral styles assessment, which measures your patterns of behavior – preferences, tendencies, and approaches to different situations across four dimensions: 

  • Dominance – problems, challenges, and exercise of power 
  • Influence – interactions with and influence of others 
  • Steadiness – change, variation, and pace of environment 
  • Compliance – rules, procedures, authority 

Though overall behavioral patterns are most commonly a combination of two or more dimensions, one dimension is considered your primary behavioral style. 

Let’s say your primary behavioral style is High Dominance. Given the pressure from the urgency of a crisis situation, you’re ready to make a decision and move forward. However, it may not be the best decision. 

Based on your System 1 Reactive Thinking you go by your gut, which tells you that you’ve seen a similar situation before. You may get frustrated when others need more time to process the situation, alternatives, and decisions. Your tendency is to move forward and make a decision on your own. 

You get better results when you let the thoughts transition from your amygdala to the prefrontal area of the brain. 

According to Kahneman, this is where your System 2 Reflective Thinking kicks in. In this area of the brain, you can be more deliberate in processing the information coming into the brain from the stimuli to the amygdala to the prefrontal neocortex area. 

The outcomes of your decisions are more thoughtful and logical. Your emotions still play a role in this prefrontal deliberation, but now you can use those emotions to your advantage.

Unlike the Vulcans of Star Trek, I’m not advocating leaders suppress and ignore emotions in favor of pure logic. Only that we learn to see our emotions as a part of the decision and leading process – not the driver.