Fair not Fear Leadership

The half-year is typically a time when many of us, not just leaders, look back on the way the first half has gone with a well-intentioned focus on using the lessons of the past six months to map our next steps for the remainder. In so doing, we often take stock of what has gone before, what we have experienced, gained and lost, and use it all to help shape what is to come. Or, at least, what we want to come.

It is not unreasonable to expect, therefore, that many, if not all, of the plans we made back in January would be scuttled by July as we strive to adapt and overcome. (Okay, maybe “scuttled” is too harsh a word, but I am sure we can agree that there must be, and has been, a significant measure of evaluation, re-evaluation, and evaluation again in the way we think, lead, and live especially in light of all that 2020 has brought thus far).

On a personal side note about this half-year so far, I find myself hard-pressed to recall a time with so many divided opinions about how events have been unfolding.

Depending on who I asked, some have said that there has already been enough change in this half-year alone to last a decade. Still others have said that this year, with all its changes, is either speeding aimlessly along or conversely, and with all the hiatuses placed on projects and plans, this is a year that has been going nowhere fast.

In any case, it stands without question or exception, 2020 has, so far, shaped up to be a year of phenomenal and unprecedented change. And the best part is, it is only half-way done. We still have another half to go. What are we going to do with that?

Back to the point at hand, one of the most poignant topics that I have come across, time and time again in my half-year reflections, is the concept of fairness, or more specifically, fairness in leadership.

So much has happened in 2020, yet the topic of fairness in leadership has remained a constant in the minds of many.

Leaders of today are faced with making incredibly tough decisions in the face of sweeping socio-economic changes that touch on everything from safeguarding sustainable economic growth and development in a pandemic-afflicted world to respecting the individual’s right to liberty and equality.

Given the gravitas and much of what has happened in light of these changes, it is no wonder that more people, as they become more aware, have become more involved. As they become more disheartened, they have become more incensed. They have become outspoken activists in a rising upsurge and chorus for greater fairness in the way we exist. They are not just masked faces we see in the crowds on media. They are the unmasked who comprise our teams and who we serve. They are the people we entrust our businesses’ survival to and they are the ones who will ultimately determine their success.

As leaders, whether within our organisations, our communities, even our homes, we have a responsibility to take stock of what is happening and what is being said. More than that, if we are to be proponents of fairness in this new normal, we need not wait for tragedy to fall at our feet, reacting to changes that can overwhelm, and instead become more involved and proactive in the fight for fairness.

What exactly is fair?

We may differ on the concept as it pertains to broader philosophical notions of fairness in society, i.e. everyone having equal rights and access to opportunities, to thoughts more grounded in topical issues of fairness in the way we serve, lead, and co-exist i.e. how we nurture a culture of fairness around and within us.

The bygone half-year has brought the entire world face to face with the reality that while it has become increasingly difficult to define fairness within society, so too has it become a challenge for leaders to demonstrate, embody, and promote that fairness within their organisations and communities. We can all agree, however, that fairness is based on a foundation of respect for the individual and integrity at every turn.

Fair Leadership vs Fear Leadership

Some leaders, either because of a lack of proper counsel, available time or even just the energy to dedicate, fail to embrace how critical promoting fairness is in their organisation’s success.

Instead, too many default to fear as a means of leadership; opting not to take the time to communicate with the people they are responsible for and serve, instead meting out dictum after dictum on why one thing must be and why another must not.

Leaders absolutely have a responsibility to do the best they can for their teams but they equally have a right to listen to what their teams are saying. The old and misguided parental adage of “Do as I say, not as I do,” comes to mind here. But our teams are not our children. And we are most certainly not their parents. We are their leaders. How we conduct ourselves must be the example.

And we can start by listening.

How else can leadership create effective and fair policies for their people if they don’t listen to them? Consider the stark reality that non-communication with our people is the quickest way to demotivate them, which inevitably leads to diminished productivity. Especially in today’s world where millennials are more likely to simply quit their jobs if they feel invalidated or ignored.

I know it may be hard to balance the daily rigours of running our business with staying in touch with our teams but I also know that if you do not take time then you will never have time. Remember, leadership isn’t just about “running a business”; it’s a movement of people, energy, and resources toward a goal of sustainable success.

Take the time to listen to what your people are saying.

What would Machiavelli say?

It seems that too many leaders in the 21st Century draw instruction from Niccolo Machiavelli’s, The Prince:
“But since it is difficult to be both together, it is much safer to be feared than loved, when one of the two must be lacking.”

Glossing over the fact that this quote is more than 5 centuries old, it is woefully out of date in today’s time. What’s more, it is often used as a justification for ham-fisted leadership.

Fair leadership must be grounded in the concept that the power invested in us, as leaders, is not to be abused. That power draws its greatest strength from our integrity in doing the right thing, our respect for the individual and how we continue to earn trust and loyalty through our actions, and our understanding that the achievement of goals is not the be all and end all of why we lead. We can lead our best not through an abuse of power but through actions consistent with the authority invested in us. Our people follow and believe in us not through fear but because we are fair.

I’m not saying that, as leaders, we should embark on a feel-good campaign to win over our teams’ love and affection. However, fairness and a more democratic leadership style are mandatory for success in the 21st Century as we, as a people, become increasingly sophisticated, more connected to each other, and less responsive to autocratic leadership.

This is why, more than ever, leaders of today need to embrace a sense of fairness (and not “fearness”) as we work on self-character development and team building, leading by example and promoting greater equality within our teams.

Making Sense of It All in an Unfair World

To be sure, what we’ve looked at this month is going to take a fair (no pun intended) bit of work. But isn’t that what leadership is about? Putting in the work to get the job done?

There are many steps that we can take to lead by fair and not fear. We can establish the rules and be equitable in how they are followed from day one. We can be more inclusive and respectful of our teams and their needs. We can demonstrate, and not demand, trust and loyalty. We can promote greater transparency and accountability as assets and not liabilities. And, of course, by constantly exercising and expecting fairness, we can encourage our teams to follow suit simply be being examples of the behaviours we wish to encourage.

If the first six months of 2020 are any indication, then we are in for quite a show for the remainder. Promoting a culture of fair leadership instead of fear leadership can make the world of difference in determining whether that show is a box office bomb or movie of the year.

And no, it’s not enough for us as leaders to grab our popcorn and sit back.

What are your thoughts on fair versus fear leadership? Share them and let’s get a discussion going.

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