I was at a conference last week, and I had the wonderful opportunity to hear Joel Manby speak. Joel is the President and CEO of Seaworld. Unlike many conference speakers I've heard, Joel didn't lecture the audience. Rather, his tone was relational and his message practical. I took a lot away from his session; however, one statement stood out in my mind above the others. While addressing the matter of leadership best practices, he said, "Fear isn't creative." Although this statement speaks to me on an intellectual level, its real power comes from my experience with toxic leaders and "fear motivators" in the workplace. Some time ago, I worked for an organization FILLED with leaders who thought fear was a viable motivating "force" and/or who had watched the movie Full Metal Jacket far too many times and decided to model their leadership after Gunnery Sergeant Hartman. They were uninspired, uncaring, unimaginative, unproductive, and, well, just "un."
The fear these leaders generated was based in a sense of uncertainty or instability. Everyone in the organization was afraid of misstepping, upsetting a supervisor, and finding himself/herself booted to the curb. So, people hid, maintained the status quo, kissed up to their bosses, and generally kept their mouths shut. Although these "un" leaders were happy with the calm seas they generated, the organization languished. Because employees were afraid, nothing changed for the better. The organization didn't grow, it didn't innovate, and creativity was stifled. As such, it never reached its potential, and many of the most talented people I've ever known left the organization, were fired, or simply faded away. And today...the organization continues to march to its own stale drumbeat.
Organizations--whether they are businesses, educational institutions, non-profits, or whatever--must encourage creativity if they want to grow and make the greatest impact on the world. They must accept risk and allow their employees to fail from time to time. They must push their employees to crawl out on some limbs, test some stormy waters, and take some leaps of faith. Sure, doing so will not always produce immediate results. But the long-term benefits in the areas of innovation and employee satisfaction will be immeasurable. Some of the greatest organizations in the world, such as Google and, yes, Seaworld, are so great because they allow their employees to explore and discover. Of course, giving this sort of latitude to the "man in the trenches" and engendering creativity doesn't just happen. But when leaders make the conscious decision to vanquish fear from the workplace and set employees free to engage their creative minds, then who knows what will happen. George Patton once said, "Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results." Indeed!