What Makes a Dynamic Leader?

by Larraine Segil

As The Honourable Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada, said, "Unless you're prepared to take risks that may result in failure, you'll never really know what you're capable of. And, you will always be afraid of something that is different."

Fear is a damaging trait. It causes insecure behavior, which can run the gamut from defensiveness and negativity to paranoia and operational paralysis in the extreme. If an organization breeds fear, this behavior can take the company into business decline.

In these circumstances, which are seen often in the transition to flat or minimal growth, the organization slides into corporate sclerosis. Process is used as a barrier and creates a series of hurdles not for the purpose of learning or quality or even validation of ideas and projects, but rather as opportunities for denial of innovation and the slowing of change.

This is why a leader must be fearless. He or she must have the courage to be first, to be different, to speak out, to act, and to fail. Without fearlessness, no significant progress, innovation or contribution is made.

Fearlessness is an essential element in the active pursuit of innovation. Dynamic leaders do not wait for opportunity to find them; they seek out new situations and do their own investigations. In order to fearlessly search for new opportunities, they are not afraid to do new things, stretch and bend their minds, and push their abilities further than they thought they could go.

Going out on a limb, a fearless leader is willing to fail because new and different are synonymous with unknown. This willingness to fail not only sets the example for others to take risks, but sets extraordinary leaders apart from the rest. Consider Lou Gerstner who turned IBM around. His consumer-focused strategy --- the need to offer customers solutions rather than just individual hardware and software products --- was a risky approach. Now it has become the goal of the entire technology industry.

Being fearless requires a considerable belief in self. You must have the conviction in your ideas in order to be willing to fail. And, what if a dynamic leader fails? He or she turns that negative into a positive through learning. In that way, failure becomes success.

The fearless leader speaks up, expressing his or her opinion when others don't want to hear it. That same leader is savvy enough to know when it is best to be diplomatic, when it is best to keep quiet. He or she is not afraid to debate and to listen to divergent opinions.

The Environment that Allows Fearlessness

To be a good home to a fearless leader, an organization must recognize the potential of new ideas and make a resource commitment to innovation. This means rewarding people for thinking. In the past, 3M Corporation created an environment that bred fearlessness. It was expected that people in research groups would spend 15 percent of their time thinking. The results of that activity were shared with others in the form of brainstorming, new project development, and research for the sake of creating new and novel ideas. These ideas may go nowhere from an economic standpoint as stand-alones, but when that learning is shared, the synergy could create applications for another's innovation.

Thinking can also cause people to become willingly self-critical as the keen eyes of the dynamic manager often recognizes what is right and wrong about the organization. These managers also listen well. Sometimes, the very issues that create work for consultants who come in and do major evaluations of the state of the corporation are already clear to those in the middle of the organization --- if only someone would ask them. And then, of course, listen to what they say.

Another, yet more difficult, strategy for instilling fearlessness is the process of sharing power. If there is a focus on creating learning opportunities for all, derived from experience within the company, there will be a tendency to share the power that knowledge creation gives. This will not happen in an atmosphere of distrust, intense personal rivalry and territoriality. Organizations that permit failure and encourage learning from it will reward those who share the power of their positions as well as their accumulated knowledge.

Says George Fisher, former CEO of Kodak, "Power sharing requires maturity and self-confidence. It means valuing the contributions of individuals and giving credit and rewards that are for both the group and those who emerge as stars."

The process of shared learning and power clearly provides a payback to the organization. Processes can be improved in all parts of the company through the advances in one part; failures can be leveraged through learning, as can the creation of a legacy of knowledge.

Shared learning and power give knowledge workers the most valuable asset of all --- increased know-how, not with regard to confidential matters that must remain with the company if they leave, but in value added to their own skills and competency.

Strategies for Becoming Fearless

Are you a fearless leader? Consider these strategies for developing this competency:

  • Conduct a "fear audit." What makes you fearful in your career? How is that fear expressed? What was the last risk you took, and what was the result?

  • Get to the root of the tasks and responsibilities that evoke fear --- probe deeper with at least five "whys" to your fear.

  • Imagine what is the absolute worst thing that can happen as a result of the activity. It usually is not as terrible as you might imagine.

  • Show fearlessness by speaking your mind in a logical, business-oriented manner, scripting it out first to ensure comfort and professionalism.

  • When confronted with a daunting fear, make a list of what the benefits are and focus on those rather than on the negatives.

  • Make a commitment to yourself to accept at least one new opportunity, however large or small, each month.

  • Review some of the risks you have taken recently that have succeeded. What made them work? How can you incorporate those techniques into other potentially fearful situations?

To enable fearlessness in others, be sure that your organization's culture accepts failure and rewards learning. When failure occurs, be sure to ask "What did you learn?" rather than "What went wrong?" Above all, let your employees know that it's OK to fail. After all, without risk, there can be no reward.

Larraine Segil is a Thought Leader on mergers, alliances and the importance of business relationships. Her latest book, "Dynamic Leader, Adaptive Organization: Ten Essential Traits for Managers," was published in March, 2002 as the lead book for Wiley Publishers. She is also the author of "FastAlliances™: Power Your E-Business" (Wiley, 2001), and "Intelligent Business Alliances," (Times Books, 1996). Larraine has been featured in BusinessWeek, CIO, CFO, Bloomberg News, and Internet World. She is a commentator on CNN, CNBC and Yahoo FinanceVision on alliances and mergers, and consults worldwide on alliances for domestic and global companies. Larraine can be reached directly at (310) 556-1778 or via email at lsegil@lsegil.com . More information can be found on her website at www.lsegil.com .

Media Contact: Cindy Kazan (414) 352-3535; cindy@communik-pr.com .

Many more articles in Executive Performance in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2003 by Larraine Segil. All rights reserved.

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