Our Fearful (and arrogant) Leader

Businessman observingParalysis by analysis. It’s a problem that plagues a lot of organizations, particularly those organizations which are entrenched, often after years of success, and are afraid to make any decision which could result in failure. Better to wait and gather more information than make a bad decision, so goes the thinking of the fearful leader.

Fear is the first type of Head Trash addressed in Squillaro and Thomas’ book, HeadTrash!: Cleaning out the Junk That Stands between You and Success. Unfortunately, fear is one of the hardest emotions to overcome because we are hardwired to use fear as an early warning sign (Squillaro and Thomas 3). The two most common fears in business is the fear of making the wrong decision and the fear of having a difficult conversation (Squillaro and Thomas 3). These two fears create much larger problems.

As the awesome 80s band Rush once said in their song Freewill, if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice. Putting off a decision for too long will cause the situation to be overcome by events and that usually does not  work out in your favor. As Dr. Stephen Covey once said, and I am paraphrasing, make the decision because if it’s the wrong one at least you’ll know that much faster and you can get back to the right decision sooner.

As another wise sage once told me, in regards to the fear of having a difficult conversation, “bad news does not get better with age.”

Most fearful leaders will do one of three things in trying to avoid a difficult conversation:

  1. Do nothing and hope the problem goes away or resolves itself somehow (Squillaro and Thomas 5). Keep in mind, there is no magic problem-solving fairy that is going to come spread dust over the person in the middle of the night and solve the problem for you.
  2. Dirty deeds can be done dirt cheap and they can also be delegated. A fearful leader will often leave the dirty work to someone else, “hey Bob, can you mention to James that he is slacking off and needs to step up, but don’t let him know it came for me.”  (Squillaro and Thomas 5)
  3. Issue a general reprimand to everybody (Squillaro and Thomas 5). We have all received this email haven’t we? “Okay, I just want to mention to everybody that we need to start coming to work on time.” This is the email that gets sent out when one person is not coming to work on time. It is another way to evade confronting the problem child. This one does not work because the person its directed at doesn’t believe they are the one that is creating the problem, or they feel they are sort of “in it together” with others who are having the problem.

Meanwhile, back at the Hall of Justice, while you are busy avoiding the tough decisions you are losing respect, you are losing credibility and you’re losing the trust of your employees (Squillaro and Thomas 11). A leader must be decisive. People are watching what you say and what you do (Squillaro and Thomas 11).

One of the challenges the fearful leader has is a valid concern. Many times, business leaders and public officials are crucified in the board room and in public eye, for making a bad decision. Abraham Lincoln was a leader who was valued for his decisiveness and his action even when he made bad decisions (Squillaro and Thomas 16). He was not afraid to make a decision and appointed Generals such as Ulysses S. Grant who were also not afraid to make a decision even if it was the wrong one (Squillaro and Thomas 17). Grant made huge military blunders but he kept moving forward (Squillaro and Thomas 17). Establish yourself as a bold decision maker, but also demonstrate prudence and caution and if necessary, explain the decision making process – this shows thoughtfulness, rather than recklessness.

Overcome the fear of making decisions by starting small – make a series of small decisions as you build up to the big decisions (Squillaro and Thomas 18). Accept the fact that making decisions can be uncomfortable as you wonder how it will turn out and expect to make mistakes (Squillaro and Thomas 18). When mistakes happen, admit them and move on.

Fear can sometimes disguise itself as arrogance, which is a second form of Head Trash. The problem with arrogant leaders is usually they either don’t recognize they are arrogant, or they do recognize they are arrogant and they feel that is a positive trait.


Arrogance makes you unreliable, and may even be costing the company money because you’re losing contracts or wasting your employees valuable time by redoing their work (Squillaro and Thomas 32-33).

There is an old saying in business that you should always be the smartest guy in the room. But this is just a saying, it is not good leadership. Good leadership comes through great minds working together. Just ask the flight crew of United Airlines Flight 232 that crashed in Sioux City, Iowa in 1989. Many lives were saved because the captain, Al Haynes, worked with his crew and didn’t think he was the smartest guy in the cockpit.

Overcoming arrogance means cultivating humility, being realistic about yourself, your ideas and your abilities (Squillaro and Thomas 36). Learn how to acknowledge others and to apologize for your actions if you’re wrong. John Wayne, in the movie Fort Apache, said not to apologize because it is a sign of weakness (Squillaro and Thomas 37). But that was a line in a movie written by a screenwriter not solid management theory.

You can say you’re sorry without being pitiful and you can own up to mistakes without hurting others (Squillaro and Thomas 37).  You can be open to other ideas and give credit where it is due – this is true leadership. Empower your people to make decisions – do you really want to do all the work yourself?  (Squillaro and Thomas 38-39)

No one wants to follow the fearful or the arrogant leader. One will get you killed through indecision, and the other gets you killed through amazingly bad decisions based on a superhero complex. This headtrash often can work in tandem – fear can underlie arrogance with many managers fearful that if it wasn’t their good idea, they will look weak or useless in front of their own superiors.

What arrogant and fearful leaders must realize is that EVERYONE can see what’s really going on. You’re not fooling anyone – but you can reverse the trend.

Squillaro, Tish, and Timothy I. Thomas. HeadTrash!: Cleaning out the Junk That Stands between You and Success. Austin, TX: Emerald Book, 2013. Print.


Sorry, comments are closed for this post.

Adopting an Airport Text for Your Classroom?Get it Now