Tuesday, 29 March 2011


The great nineteenth century thinker Alexis de Tocqueville had a way of assessing the state of health of a society: simply ask people the question, are they fearing to fall or hoping to rise?  We believe this question is one that leaders need constantly to ask – about themselves, about their teams, about the organisations they lead, whether a company, an institution or a nation.

The two statements are a different take on an old and familiar pairing of opposites: carrot vs. stick, or more cynically greed vs. paranoia.  And they seem to echo well with the unusual times we live in - here in the UK with a government desperately trying to balance austerity with aspiration, and right around the world with regimes of fear crumbling as the hopes of a new generation are asserted.

On the one hand there’s the school of optimistic leadership, which believes that a positive attitude – the hope that we will rise – is itself a vital part of ensuring that we do rise. Taken to extremes, this thinking finds expression in ideas like Bhutan’s much-imitated ‘Gross National Happiness’ index.  Prime Ministers and other leaders who take this approach begin to see themselves as Prime Motivators.  And plenty of leaders see an attack on fear as one of their principle duties, taking their cue from the classic line in FDR’s first inaugural, ‘we have nothing to fear but fear itself’.  A classic sporting example is Wimbledon’s defeat of Liverpool in the 1988 FA Cup Final: small, poor, unfancied Wimbledon had nothing to lose, they’d already ‘won’ by getting this far – they could only hope to rise further.  Big, rich favourites Liverpool would have proved nothing by winning – their fear of falling is widely seen as having brough them to their knees. 

So far so (relatively) uncomplicated.  But it’s not hard to find vocal and persuasive opponents to this.  There’s an entire genre of business books devoted to the idea of ‘feeding on the fear’.  Simon Woodroffe, the Yo! Sushi founder, deliberately placed himself in extreme personal debt at the start of his entrepreneurial journey – partly of course to create a pool of investment capital but more importantly to create ‘a pool of fear’.  Bosses are frequently quietly pleased to see members of their teams taking on big personal financial responsibilities (major mortgages, school fees): now they have further to fall, the theory goes, the fear of falling will spur them on to greater performance – and a manager can manipulate that fear with some precision if they choose.  The relentless need for change and re-invention in so many organisations, and the difficulty of establishing the all-important ‘buy-in’ to change among employees, voters and other vital groups, drives leaders time and again to the tricky stratagem of defining and articulating ‘the burning platform’ (a term which has domesticated itself so thoroughly into management speak that we no longer have a sense of the horrific reality which it was first used to describe in the oil industry, in the days before rescue helicopters).    Once employees, voters, shareholders, or taxpayers feel the flames, the logic goes, it will be relatively simple to get all hands to the pumps.

To complicate matters, some of the most iconic stories told of leadership reflect a position somewhere in the middle.  Churchill didn't exactly give a nation hope (or at least only in tiny doses), nor did he push the buttons of fear when he talked about a kind of dogged courage that would ‘never give up’, that promised only ‘blood sweat toil and tears’.  Even his voice, with its deliberately unheroic matter-of-factness, its resolution tinged with weariness, refused to play the game of hope and fear, carrot and stick.  Does this middle way represent ‘the answer’?  Or is it a one-off, successful only because of extraordinary circumstances - not least Churchill's awareness of the unremitting hysteria of Hitler's focus on extreme exaggerations of both hope and fear?

Leaders who want to deepen their understanding of what it takes to succeed should constantly ask this question about fearing to fall vs hoping to rise – asking it in terms of their own motivation, and asking it in terms of their experience of leading organisations through highs and lows.

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