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What does it take to be a fearless leader? Caleb Woods

Here are two simple things to get you started….

I once had a boss who managed all of his senior managers through an online performance management system because he was unable to speak to us directly about our accountability.

In one to one meetings, I could never get a word in about what was going on in my department, good or bad. He would talk non-stop for the whole hour. I knew enough about his wife and kids that I’m sure they would be mortified. But we would never talk about the work.

All of us directors and our staff had to spend inordinate amounts of time filling in his electronic system that was neither fit for purpose or useful in its practice. We had all quickly learned to game the system so that we spent as little time as possible entering information so that it wouldn’t send red flags to the boss.

What came out in the end was that the director with the most seniority among us was failing badly, but this new chief executive didn’t have the guts to confront him on his poor outcomes. So he enforced this meaningless, onerous system on all of us to provide him with red-amber-green ratings against our objectives.

It did nothing to help him solve his problem with his renegade manager, it cost tens of thousands of pounds, and it damaged his relationships with the rest of us. He lost our respect, and he had no idea how any of us were actually performing.

This kind of fearful and weak leadership undermines organisations and cheats professionals of all kinds out of good career development.

If you’re the leader experiencing this kind of fear, simply overcoming it can seem impossible. Our reaction to our fears also make us retreat into some unhelpful behaviours. Unless we get a grip on what is causing it, the reaction to fear can often make things worse.

In the case of leaders, the fear of being found out as a fraud, of feeling like you have no idea what you’re doing or how to do it, or that you have been promoted beyond your ken, is incredibly common. And whether you are a leader or not you can probably relate to this feeling in some aspect of your life.

This fear of being found out can lead to some primal survival methods that almost always backfire. The office-based equivalent of running and hiding is usually the default in these situations. Avoidance, like my boss’s, is just one of those.

People see through this behaviour immediately. There are only so many diversionary tactics or I’m-too-busy-to-talk-to-you excuses that staff will accept before wondering if you actually have a clue about what is going on in your own organisation or with them.

It can be scary to sit down one to one with a staff member who perhaps has been in the organisation much longer than you, who might be a technical expert in something you know very little about, or who seems well-liked by everyone, and challenge them on their performance.

But it doesn’t have to be this way, especially if it doesn’t start out this way.

To be fearless in a leadership situation like this involves just two things: listening and transparency.

Listening instead of talking means you don’t have to appear to know it all, which helps with feelings of being a fraud. Transparency means that staff are clear that you have heard them, building trust and a stronger relationship so that you can get more open in your conversations.

With all of your staff, but especially those that you are concerned with their performance, do much more listening than talking. You don’t have to know the detail of their work at this point, so no need to blag. A few generic questions as prompts can lead to all the information you need from that person to get to know how they’re doing. If you are starting from zero, you will quickly begin to get a picture of the important things at stake in the work that they do.

This needs very little bravery and actually takes the pressure off of you. You are not a fraud, you are getting to know what you need to in order to do your job as a good leader.

Most people are trying to do a good job and want to share with you the work they are proud of. A few words of encouragement can let them know that you also need to hear what is not going well, so that you can help. Only the most seasoned charlatan will be able to keep up untrue stories of stellar outcomes and dazzling activity in their domains of responsibility for long if that is not the reality.

And those people do exist. But whether facing a charlatan or a struggling staff member, the second most important thing to help you be brave and effective is transparency.

In the case of performance, it means making sure every single staff member has a set of written objectives and performance milestones that you have both signed up to.

Each one to one meeting is a discussion about progress against each objective, documented on paper, for you both to see and agree. This has the added benefit of making people feel listened to, and more importantly, heard. It goes an incredibly long way toward building strong relationships that can get you through challenges that may come up later.

For instance, in one of my first director jobs I had to manage a very high-ranking technical professional who was about 20 years older than me and well respected in our area. I soon realised he wasn’t doing a fraction of the work he was supposed to be doing for our organisation. I had only the most superficial knowledge of his area of expertise, so I spent our time together asking him about the work he was doing and how it aligned to our strategy for his area. He bluffed and blagged his way through every one of our monthly meetings.

I wrote a few bullet points in summary each time, shared and agreed them with him, then started with those the next time. It gave me the confidence I needed to manage his poor performance despite being way over my head professionally, and it meant I was able to do something about it.

I had to fire my expert in the end, and I did so with legal confidence because I had a trail of evidence over time. I also used this system to make a case for pay raises for members of my team.

Documenting the response in just a few bullets gives you something to pick up on next time. This process gets you ever more comfortable with having the face to face conversations about performance. You gain confidence to challenge when progress each month is poor or otherwise unsatisfactory, and it lets you give authentic praise about good work done.

Transparency means you can feel sure that your staff sees you as being vested in their performance and that you know what is going on with them and their work.

You are no longer a fraud, and you are on your way to being fearless. You are a plugged in and useful leader keeping the performance of your company up by listening to and documenting progress, creating a culture of value and transparency that lifts everyone.

You can sign up here to receive news of the launch of my first book. It is a book on leading and managing teams based on a simple four-part model that makes it possible for anyone to get a grip and do a good job. I will be sharing the first chapter to everyone on the list in the next few weeks.

I write about how I became the founder of a tech startup as a non-techie, over-40 female with no entrepreneurial experience, and all I am learning along the way. You can see more here: If you think this might be helpful for others on their entrepreneurial journey, please recommend and share by clicking the heart.