Why Fear-Based Leadership Fails

When I was a young manager I had an experience that forever altered my perspective of what it means to be a leader.

Six months into my tenure as a sales manager, we got a new “big boss” who came to town to make sales calls with us. To say I was nervous would be putting it mildly.

My boss and I picked up Mr. Big Boss at the airport. His flight was late, so he jumped in our car at the curb and we rushed straight to my customer’s office where we were presenting a new product line. I gave what I thought was a good presentation. Mr. Big Boss didn’t say much afterward. We then headed straight for my boss’ customer, where he gave a similar presentation.

We drove back to our office and parked. Just as we were about to get out of the car, Mr. Big Boss said, “Don’t you want to hear my feedback?” With me sitting in the backseat of my boss’s company-issued Ford Taurus, I watched as Mr. Big Boss proceeded to tear my boss apart. He went through the presentation page by page with a scathing critique of every item.

Keep in mind; both the actual sales calls had gone well. But Mr. Big Boss thought we should have gone for more—more SKUs, more shelf space, more advertising support.

As Mr. Big Boss ripped through my boss, I sat silently in the backseat watching as my tall, confident, smart 50-year-old boss slumped lower and lower into his seat with every word. By the time Mr. Big Boss got to the last page, my boss was a defeated man. His head was practically on the steering wheel.

My first thought was, “I’m about to be fired.” My next thought was, “We’re both going to be fired.” I felt like I wanted to throw up. The scathing written report came 2 days later. Mr. Big Boss was disappointed in us on every level.

We kept our jobs, but 2 months later, he came back. Were we afraid? You better believe we were. We were also ready—ready to do whatever it took to show Mr. Big Boss exactly what he wanted to see. Any thoughts about our customers, and what was good for the business went out the window. Instead all we cared about was how to save face with our boss, taking him to places we knew we’d be successful, making it seem like things were better than they were, and basically presented a false front to ensure he was pleased with us.

And he was. The next memo told us how much we’d improved. If you want to make the case for fear-based leadership, you could say Mr. Big Boss got us to act. When you peel back the layers, Mr. Big Boss did more harm than good. We didn’t improve our results; we simply showed Mr. Big Boss what we knew he wanted to see. I found out later all the other sales managers in our region had done the same thing.

That’s the problem with fear-based leadership. When people are afraid of the boss, the boss gets an altered view of reality. People don’t improve; they act like they’ve improved. Fortunately our next big boss decided to coach us, instead of berate us. As you might imagine, that’s when we actually improved. Fear will get your employees to act, but probably not in the way you want them to.