Resisting the Temptation to Lead by Fear

Resisting the Temptation to Lead by Fear January 25, 2020

It’s Saturday morning and, as weather fronts collide, our area is being affected by high winds, thunderstorms, and a series of tornado warnings.  Storms are forming west of us and, unfortunately, some communities will be damaged by high winds and, potentially, by tornadic activity.  But the language that is used by the reporters is telling: “Red alert!” “You folks in Cadiz are going to get hit hard!”  One wonders when meteorologists will begin screaming, “Battle stations, rig for collision.”

As in politics and other spheres of our lives, the appetite for cultivating fear and alarm has become typical of our approach to almost everything.  The same kind of language is already characteristic of the reporting that we hear.  Commentators, politicians, and even clergy rely upon the same, breathless urgency.  With increasing frequency, leaders of every kind set dates for the end of the world as we know it, conjuring up opponents who will be “left behind” or consigned to some kind of hell – even if the end and hell are not the stuff of fire and brimstone preaching of another era.

Why has this rhetorical strategy become so common that it has become impossible to know when and where the language of urgency might actually apply?  There may be many reasons.

Are we indulging an under-exercised and genetic capacity for fight and flight?

Perhaps.  We underestimate the power that our genetic history has over the way in which we react to the stimuli around us, and how much that inheritance drives us to find a place for its expression.  Our so-called sophistication and technological prowess might moderate such influences, but they cannot erase its influence and – unexamined – our natural predilections can dominate our behavior.

Are we appealing to the language of urgency too often because we live in an age when it is less obvious what is genuinely a danger to us?

That might be the case, too.  I still remember the conversation with John Housman in film,  “3 Days of the Condor.”  Referring to two World Wars, Houseman’s character is asked, “Do you miss that kind of action, sir?” and Houseman responds, “No, I miss that kind of clarity.”

Are leaders willfully manipulating their followers?

Yes, that too, is also a factor and now – thanks to social media – everyone can play that game and does.  There was a time when the the effort to generate hysteria was confined to our tabloids, but now it is everywhere, and because “getting heard” is more and more difficult – an ever larger number of people are tempted to rely upon it.

In an environment in which everyone is cultivating fear, it is incumbent upon leaders to model centered, deliberative leadership.  That is the only kind of leadership that provides space for careful assessment and strategic decision-making.  It is also the only kind of leadership that enlists the thoughtful and gifted people in any community, who might contribute to problem-solving.

Leaders of that kind embody the following characteristics:

  1. Restraint: In order to provide deliberative leadership, there needs to be ample space for gathering facts and a careful sifting of the way in which those facts might be interpreted.


  1. A steady, public presence: Effective leaders cannot afford to cultivate fear, nor should they transmit fear. Those who do run the risk that important decisions will be made by what is sometimes called “the reptile mind” and there is nothing deliberative about it.  A steady, public presence encourages people to contribute and helps them to focus on the challenges that a community faces.


  1. A capacity for rising above the opinion of others: Leaders who provide organizations in times of high anxiety need to listen to what people are saying. There are clues to the nature of the challenges that their organizations face in those comments, and the same comments can also help a leader to understand how a community is being affected by the challenges it faces.  But leaders cannot afford to be driven by what they hear.  Effective leaders combine situational awareness with a centered approach to their task.


  1. The knowledge that leadership limits what you can say and do: Far too many leaders see their rise to a position of responsibility as the opportunity to do anything that they have ever wanted to do and to say anything that they have ever thought of saying. Neither is true.  In fact, effective leaders are leaders who realize that the range of behaviors and speech that are open to them are greatly circumscribed.  And the effective leaders also cultivate a deeper and deeper congruence between their public and private personae.


  1. An approach to communication that is free of emotional manipulation: Effective leaders know that manipulating people can be perilously easy and an enormous temptation. They also know that manipulation costs leaders the confidence of their communities.  So, they keep their communication free of strategies designed to instill fear and anger.


  1. An approach to communication that eschews tribal appeals: Leaders who lead well attract new followers and galvanize communities. They avoid tribal appeals, because they know such appeals spread acrimony, divide communities, and compromise the future.


  1. An ability to build upon the gains of the past: Every leader faces challenges, and – because organizations are constantly evolving – there are always improvements to be made. But the attentive leader also knows that we all depend upon the sacrifice and effort of generations that have preceded us.  Effective leaders reject language that vilifies the past in the name of self-aggrandizement, and they lead their communities forward, building on the best of the past.


For the effective spiritual leader, all of those characteristics are grounded in an eighth and all-important characteristic: A life grounded in a sense of responsibility to the God who made us.

Walter Brueggemann notes that we are – according to the language of Genesis one – God’s “viceroys.”  The term is foreign to us, but it describes the delegated authority of one who acts on behalf of a king.  That authority is not a license to do what we want to do but is circumscribed by the king’s priorities and the king’s way of ruling.  It is this realization that centers an effective leader.  It is not always easy to know what is required of us, but the leader who acknowledges this transcendent commitment resists the temptation to lead by fear.





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