In one of my first management positions, I had an employee on my team who liked to refer to me as his “fearless leader.” It was mostly an inside joke between the two of us because I stood up for him when he was being given a hard time by another department. Throughout my career, I consistently received feedback that I was a good advocate for my team, that I was supportive of the people in my department. I don’t think that necessarily made me fearless, but it did send a signal to others that I had my team’s back.

Recently a client shared with me her frustrations about her manager. We’ll call her manager, Jane (not her real name). My client described a recent email from Jane where she was getting deep into the details on a current project, asking for  a lot of specific information, questioning decisions that had already been made, and wanting to weigh in on matters that were squarely within my client’s responsibility. As I delved into the dynamics of this interaction with my client and took a wider view of what was happening, my client realized that Jane was operating from a place of fear. It turns out that Jane had been questioned about the project by her boss, and that triggered the response that had my client so frustrated.

While Jane may have felt justified in making sure everything was going well in the project – after all, she was only asking questions! – what my client heard was “I don’t trust you,” “I question your ability,” and “I’m the boss.” By managing from fear, Jane ended up micro-managing, casting doubt, and doing damage to her relationship with my client.

Fearful leaders like Jane often convince themselves that they have to manage in this way in order to avoid mistakes, hold their team accountable, and please the leaders above them. Instead they generate frustration, resentment, mistrust, and avoidant behavior on their teams. So, the question is – are you leading and managing from fear? Here are some ways to tell.

If you exhibit some of these behaviors, you may be a fearful leader:

  • Worrying too much – about what people think; about what you may not know; about what could go wrong
  • Getting in the weeds – needing the details to ensure that nothing is going wrong; finding comfort in knowing specifics; feeling as if you don’t have a good enough handle on things; needing control
  • Behaving erratically – being calm and measured when things are going well and then exhibiting the worst of these behaviors when triggered by fear; shifting your negative attention from topic to topic (or person to person) depending on what you are most concerned about at that moment; exhibiting anxiety and stress
  • Focusing on pleasing others – not wanting to be blamed; trying to keep others happy, especially higher ups
  • Over-committing your team – failing to advocate for your team; not pushing back on unreasonable demands from others; taking on too much
  • Steering clear of conflict – acquiescing; being self-critical; not taking risks; avoiding confrontation or tough conversations

It is possible to shift from being a fearful leader to a fearless one (or at least a much more confident one). Begin by making an honest self-assessment of your own behaviors and the things that trigger your fearful responses. And then get feedback from those around you through a facilitated 360° or multi-rater feedback process. Armed with that data, you can then set goals for improving your ways of managing and leading – and letting go of the fear.

Where might you be managing from fear?
Please leave a comment to share.

If you enjoyed this post, you can read more like it in our book, The Power of Thoughtful Leadership: 101 Minutes To Being the Leader You Want To Be, available on Amazon.

If you are interested in learning more about a 360° feedback process, we can answer your questions and recommend the best approach for you. And for coaching support to move from fearful to fearless leadership, contact Robyn at

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