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12 Signs That You're a Cowardly Leader

By: Mike Staver
Last updated 9/27/2012

We all feel fear. What separates the proverbial men from the boys, and women from the girls, is how we respond to our fears. Courageous leaders face what needs to be faced and do what needs to be done. Cowardly leaders make excuses, hide their heads in the sand, and generally take the easy way out. All actions have consequences. So does lack of action. With the margin for error so slim in today’s workplace, you want to make sure you’re thinking as coolly and clearly as possible.

You don’t have to be an out-and-out coward to let fear impact your leadership effectiveness. Many people are unaware of how profoundly fear influences their decision making.

Are you leading from a place of fear? See if the following apply to you:

  • You frequently take the easy way out. You avoid taking bold, decisive action because it makes you uncomfortable. Then, you rationalize why you didn’t do what you really needed to do: I wanted to go to the national trade show, but we just couldn’t get the prototype ready by the deadline…or I’ve always thought we should take part in the green initiative, but the CEO would just shoot down the suggestion, so there was no point in bringing it up. Generally, such rationalizations boil down to fear. What if you unveiled the prototype at the trade show and it flopped? What if you approached the CEO with your green initiative idea and he rejected you—or worse, what if he didn’t reject you and then you had to make it work? It’s easier to avoid taking action (at least in the short term), but it’s also a sure path to mediocrity and stagnation.
  • You pretend you don’t know what you actually know. You pretend you don’t know about opportunities in order to avoid risk. You pretend you don’t know that a high performer is behaving badly and making other employees unhappy. You pretend that your biggest client isn’t crushing employee morale. Maybe, you even pretend you don’t know it’s time for you to move on. All of this pretending allows you to avoid pain and feel good in the short term, but it exacts a heavy price over time. There is always a price to be paid for necessary actions not taken. Your job as a leader is to look reality in the face and accept it so that you can make the tough decisions that need to be made.
  • You fall victim to “shiny ball” syndrome. Most of us are easily distractible—easily falling prey to every shiny thing that comes into view. In fact, we often don’t want to say no to distractions because what we should be focusing on may be difficult, unpleasant, or anxiety producing. Anyone can stay busy. It takes real courage and fortitude to stay focused and on task. I heard a shocking statistic recently: The average Sunday edition of the New York Times has more information in it than the average human being in the 1700s received during his entire lifetime. If we can’t achieve focus and manage the deluge of information that comes at us every day, we’ll drown in the chaos. We’ll fail to do the important things. And we’ll fail as leaders.
  • You ignore what’s causing “weight and drag” in your company. Maybe it’s a policy, a person, or a mindset that’s holding you or your team back from optimal performance. Ask yourself now: What am I doing, or not doing, that is adding weight and drag? Am I refusing to make a decision, waiting to hire an assistant, delaying a hiring or firing issue? At the core of your job is your role as an obstacle remover. Be courageous: remove the obstacles you can and work around the ones that remain so that you can stay productive, directed, and focused.
  • You refuse to balance your head and your gut. It takes both facts and intuition to analyze situations effectively. Many leaders stick to the analytic style they’re most comfortable with. Courageous leaders understand that decisions that have a direct impact on people’s lives require both aspects of analysis—and that means most of us need to step outside our comfort zones when it’s time to make decisions.
    Your leadership will be enhanced, the performance of your team will improve, and they will likely trust you more if you lead with both your head and your gut. They are like two sides of the same coin.
  • You hide behind the “I’m not quite ready” excuse. Leaders and organizations spend too much time getting ready to be ready to get ready to almost get ready to be ready to get ready. Then they form a committee or a task force (which is just a committee on steroids) to evaluate more and look into the situation more so that they can really be ready. Getting overly ready is a result of fear. You don’t want to fail so instead you put off the moment of truth by perpetually getting ready. Should you prepare? Of course! Do your research? Yes. But stop hiding behind the “we aren’t quite ready” curtain. Say, “Enough is enough,” and just do it—even if conditions aren’t perfect.
  • You see only the information that agrees with your beliefs. We all have a natural tendency to ignore information that contradicts our beliefs about the world, especially our negative beliefs. If we believe someone doesn’t like us, we will see only those behaviors that support that impression. If we think we are bad at something, we will see only more evidence of that conclusion. This tendency is so strong that it blinds us to contrary evidence. As long as we don’t see other possibilities we don’t have to take action.
  • You’re constantly blaming others. This is an energy-draining, counterproductive way of dealing with difficult circumstances. Blaming someone else puts you in the position of a victim who is not in control. Therefore, you won’t take action to change your circumstances because it’s someone else’s problem. (How convenient, huh?). Victim thinking affects not just individuals but entire organizations. Acknowledging that you are ultimately responsible for the results of your life, thoughts, and actions creates a level of freedom not experienced by those who choose to blame others. It empowers you to act. Courageous leaders are driven by, even obsessed with, the imperative to eliminate excuse making and blame from themselves and their organizations.
  • You reward effort rather than achievement. It’s a mistake to be too “soft” about expectations, to say, “Just do your best.” People will not achieve just because you encourage and motivate them. Somebody must drive performance. Somebody must plant the flag on the hill and refuse to accept anything but success. That somebody is you. Courageous leaders lay out expected results in the most effective and humane way possible and are clear about the consequences of not meeting them. Bosses may worry about upsetting their employees, so they don’t set high expectations. I believe in a respectful workplace where people enjoy their jobs and look forward to coming to work, but I am also in full support of less whining and more doing, less passing the buck and more personal responsibility, less explaining why you didn’t and more showing how you did.
  • You’re a helicopter leader. Accountability is a major buzzword for leaders. And it is important for leaders to keep people focused on what matters and so they can align performance with expectations. Unfortunately, some leaders think accountability means constantly standing over employees to make sure they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing, in the way you think they should be doing it. This is not accountability; it’s hovering. And it’s yet another manifestation of fear. Helicopter leaders are afraid to let go because they believe the work won’t get done if they don’t oversee every detail. Either this fear is unfounded or it’s a sign that employees really aren’t capable of doing their jobs. The solution is simple: do your job and let them do theirs, or get rid of incompetent employees and replace them with people who can get the job done.
  • You solve all of your people’s problems. Problem solving is a big part of leadership. It’s also a big part of followership. Do not solve all of your followers’ problems; don’t even solve most of them. Remember that the more you are involved in solutions, the more likely it will be that your reports will become overly dependent on you. If they know you will come in and fix their problems, they will wait. They will also feel that you don’t have confidence in them. Manage your anxiety and have a little faith in others. Your employees will rise to the occasion and you’ll be a lot happier.
  • Mental clutter is keeping you from noticing. The more you fear, the more you try to do. The more you try to do, the more you have to think about. You have more meetings, more calls to make, more emails to read and send, and more commitments to obsess over. Once you let go of some of the fear, you can free up the time to do the things that truly inspire and invigorate you. These moments will be the times when you notice that your veteran sales rep needs you to back off a bit, or that your morning grumpiness is affecting everyone’s enthusiasm. These will be the moments that show you how to motivate your followers and inspire them to greater success. These moments will refresh your ability to notice the rest of your life. Ultimately, you’ll realize this may be the best reason of all to confront your hidden fears and vanquish your inner coward.

The ramifications of fear-centered leadership wreak havoc that extends beyond the workplace,. The anxiety that comes from not doing what you know deep down needs to be done—and from managing the fallout from your poor decisions—drains the energy you could be spending on friends, family, and the outside interests that make life worth living.

About the Author(s)

Mike Staver is a business coach and speaker and is CEO of the Staver Group (www.thestavergroup.com). He is a certified speaking professional (CSP), a designation held by fewer than 10% of professional speakers. His most recent book is Leadership Isn’t for Cowards: How to Drive Performance by Challenging People and Confronting Problems (Wiley, 2012). His other published works include the book Do You Know How to Shut Up? And 51 Other Life Lessons That Will Make You Uncomfortable.