By Tom Ehrich
Let’s consider fear.
Not the usual phobias – fear of snakes, fear of heights – but the fears that tend to compromise our effectiveness as leaders.
I’m thinking fear of rejection, fear of failure, fear of losing control, fear of conflict, and fear of change.
These fears can paralyze us at precisely the point where we need to act, or cause us to behave compulsively when we need to listen and absorb, or drive us protectively inward when our better course would be collaboration.
For example, fear of failure can cause a leader to overcompensate and to take on too many tasks because colleagues cannot be trusted to do them right. This irritates potential collaborators, leaves them feeling diminished, and causes some to wonder what the leader is hiding.
Fear of rejection can cause a leader to be too accommodating, too passive. Fear of conflict leads to shallow relationships, as well as hiding of outcomes. Fear of losing control leads to narrow and safe leadership alliances, not bold and challenging interactions.
Fear is a powerful demon, turning us into the very beings we want not to be, and undermining the accomplishments we want to attain. When afraid, we make poor and self-defeating decisions.
Fear has many sources. A situation can trigger an ancient dread or a painful memory. An antagonist can threaten us. An authority can promise reward but also imply risk. Fear can arise from having our personal space invaded, or being shouted at, or being drawn into unwanted intimacy.
Sometimes we are wise to be fearful, as in an unsafe system where honesty will be used against us, or where people around us are being hurt, or where dangerous persons are unchecked. Scott Peck wrote an entire book about fearing evil, called “People of the Lie.” Leaders in an open and diverse system like a church can count on encountering people who are, in fact, evil and dangerous.
Jesus said, “Don’t be afraid.” Speak the truth even when doing so will offend the darkness. Stand for justice, even when the powerful fight back. Welcome the outcast and lowly, even when the proper and pious threaten reprisal. Choose life when others prefer death. Choose love when others hate.
The Christ-led response to fear is to take the counter-intuitive position and to walk apart from the crowd. You might still suffer, but God will be in that suffering.
In my experience, we learn to be brave, partly by having bravery work for us, but mainly by seeing how lousy the outcomes are when we yield to fear. For a time when I felt under attack, I went home from leadership meetings more than once filled with self-loathing because I had yielded to fear.
Antagonists in church conflict usually start their assault by establishing an environment of fear. Not cogent arguments, not contrary positions, but intimidation. The leader who can respond by remaining non-anxious and reasonable will eventually prevail. But that is asking a lot of a leader, especially when fellow leaders protect themselves by standing aside, not enforcing healthy norms, and leave the bully and the leader to joust.
What I suggest, first, that you sense the fear as it rises. Knot in the stomach, body language of turning away, loss of normal confidence in speaking – just see it happening. Then, second, name the fear and insist that no meaningful decisions can be made as long as some are causing fear and others are feeling fear.