Harnessing the Fear


Harnessing the Fear

Stephen Lambright, group vice president and general counsel of Anheuser-Busch, is a big, tough, confident man. But, like so many other top executives, he acknowledges that fear is part of his professional life and he is not ashamed to admit it. However, he notes, there is a big difference between fear and panic. "I think that a certain element of fear—as opposed to panic—is pretty darn healthy. It is like going into battle or going into a football game. You are a better player if you have a certain degree of fear. Some fear is healthy. But use it as a personal motivator rather than making it the message to everyone around you." Lieutenant General John Sams, former commander of the Fifteenth Air Force, said virtually the same thing: fear can sharpen you, but not if you let it paralyze you.

Indeed, a majority of invincible executives say that they can use their fear of failure to achieve positive results. A client who was in a real bind once told me, "Professional fear is like the first time you wear prescription sunglasses. You see everything in a darker shade, but with a sharpness and clarity that kind of jumps out at you." Fear of failure sharpens the senses. Indeed, Lieutenant General Sams notes, "There is fear but it is not paralyzing fear. In fact, I tend to get better at what I am doing when there is fear in the picture because things tend to slow down for me when the pressure is on. I can see things more clearly and I'm able to react in a way that gives me greater vision into what is going on around me when things are totally in chaos. Things slow down and you are able to see better.... Fear has to sharpen you or you will be to some extent paralyzed by it."

Indeed, it is fear that causes invincible executives to take steps to reduce their risk of a career-ending scandal. These steps fall into four categories. First, the fear of failure allows invincible executives to focus their management efforts on obtaining a high-volume, unjaded information flow from their subordinates. Invincible executives create an environment, according to Mike Sears of Boeing, where people understand that they can and must flow problems in the company up the chain of command without concern that senior management will kill the messenger. Important news—be it good or bad—must get to senior management, and it is the responsibility of senior management to set up reporting structures that will allow information to get to them.

Invincible executives do not become insular. They do not isolate themselves by relying solely upon a small core of close friends and advisers. Instead, they keep lines of communication open between themselves and people two or three tiers below themselves in the organization. We will discuss this issue in depth in Part III.

Second, as I mentioned briefly before, invincible executives have to be willing to listen to the advice of the specialists—accountants, lawyers, environmental engineers, and media specialists. The CEOs who shun professional advice ("I hate those lawyers"; "Screw the accountants") are playing roulette with their careers. It is very common to hear senior executives speak disdainfully about lawyers, accountants, and other professional consultants. Those who really mean it often take a hard fall. More often than not, however, top executives place quiet reliance upon value-added specialists, and then tell the lawyer jokes for cover. "I think it is just a bunch of grandstanding when I hear top executives say that they do not need the lawyers and accountants. The really good ones rely heavily upon expertise," says Joe Durant, CEO of Westar Corporation. "If they do not, they get what is coming to them."

Adam Clymer, Washington correspondent for the New York Times, told me an interesting story about the failure to heed professional advice. Clymer told me that one of the flaws that led to the downfall of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich was that Gingrich often did not heed good advice of trained professionals. For example, Clymer told me about the time Gingrich and President Clinton were on Air Force One going to a funeral. Gingrich had hoped to spend some time with the president discussing budget issues during the trip but was not granted an audience with the president. Then, apparently Gingrich had to exit from the rear door of the plane. Gingrich was mad about the whole episode and wanted to comment publicly on it, but his press secretary told him not to say anything to anyone about the incident. Yet—against the advice of his press expert—Gingrich complained to the media about his treatment. It backfired. Gingrich was skewered by the press for acting like a big baby. There were even cartoons showing Gingrich in diapers crying. Clymer told me that Gingrich later confided to him that he should have listened to the experts but "he just couldn't help himself." Clymer added that Gingrich, though a brilliant man "bubbling with ideas," made this kind of mistake "again and again." "The unwillingness to pay attention to cautionary advice from staff" is a common theme in the downfall of politicians, according to Clymer.

Third, top executives obviously have to pick advisers they can trust. However, they often do not define trust with a broad enough brush. Trust encompasses not only morality, honesty, and loyalty, but also competence. Many flawed executives surround themselves with sycophants—friends or relatives who may be as honest and well-intentioned as they can be, but who are of such minimal competence that they simply defer to the boss on all issues. Being surrounded by weakness can give an executive a feeling of power and invincibility, but that feeling is a mirage. I have run into dozens of lame, untalented hangers-on in my career—consultants who flatter rather than analyze, lawyers who protect their careers before they protect the company, accountants who exercise no independent judgment whatsoever. I can spot them a mile away, and their incompetence almost always catches up with the people they are advising. True invincible executives surround themselves with people who are smart and independent thinkers, but who still show respect for the boss.

Fear of failure also creates motivation, according to former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt. When you are running for office every two years, you have that fear of failure with you all the time, Congressman Gephardt says. But a good politician uses that concern to motivate himself or herself to keep on top of all of the issues. Similarly, according to ex-prosecutor and leading Democrat Ed Dowd, the fear of failure "results in preparation." No one wants to be embarrassed in court or giving a speech, so you should "internalize your fears" and use them to motivate you to be well-prepared for anything that you set out to do. Once you feel prepared, the fear evaporates.

Finally, you cannot let other people see your fear. Former Senator Alan Simpson notes that "fear and excitement or enthusiasm give off exactly the same body language." So, part of the process of harnessing fear for your advantage is to make it look like enthusiasm for tackling the new challenges ahead.

Invincible executives do not lie awake at night sweating. They do not allow their fears to paralyze them into timidity or inaction. Rather, they convert fear into sharper thinking, open communication, and reliance upon strong, reliable subordinates. If you let your fears sharpen your information-gathering and analytic skills, more often than not, "you will know the answer before you even start" down a particular road, says former Senator Bob Dole. According to Senator Dole, harnessing fear for positive ends puts you so much on top of a situation that you can live your career without ever asking a question to which the answer will be no. Your fear can lead you to sharpened levels of fact gathering and analysis such that you can eliminate most risks.