Are You Leading From Fear or Openness?

Over the past several months I have witnessed a fascinating diversity of leadership with respect to the polarities of fear and openness. One view of our world is that polarities exist for everything—black vs. white, hot vs. cold, up vs. down, and of course, fear vs. openness.

You can take your leadership to the next level by learning to harness the power of fear and openness as well as respecting the dark side of these emotions.

Man Screaming

Let’s look at fear first. Fear can be debilitating as well as energizing. Imagine you are fearful of changes in your team. You might be afraid of team members leaving, becoming burned out, or quarreling over frivolous issues. Any of these have the potential to decimate your team’s ability to meet it’s goals.

On the other hand, as the title of Andy Grove’s book states, only the paranoid survive. We all can do well with a healthy amount of fear. For example, fear of getting run over by a car keeps us alive as we walk across the street. Fear of our competitors gives us a good incentive to develop sound strategies and superior products. The trick is to use fear wisely and keep it in balance.

The other side of this polarity, openness, works in a similar fashion. You may be so open to new ideas and processes that you never get your current tasks completed. However, if you are too low in openness, you may stifle new processes, products, or strategies. In addition, a high level of openness is important in the early stages of a project but can be devastating in the final stages when you need to be converging toward a final solution and completion of tasks.

Now let’s throw the idea of change into this discussion, both internal and external change.

Change outside of your group, external change, is out of your control and it is healthy to fear it to the extent that you prepare for possible changes. If you fear external changes too much you may become impaired and end up freezing. Embrace the gamut of possible changes and develop strategies to deal with them.

Any changes you make internal to your team may be alarming as well. Team members may need to adjust to new roles and work assignments. Conflicts may arise during the adjustment period and some individuals may end up in roles they are not well suited for. However, remaining open to changes within your team can bring you to higher achievements and greater success.

As with all reflective work, awareness is the first step. Observe your emotions so that you are aware when fear emerges. Notice how fear can enhance your business strategies. Ask yourself how open you are when team members bring you innovative ideas. The ideas may also bring you fear. If so, feel the fear, juxtapose it with the openness, and explore the interplay of these two polarities.


  • Using fear wisely and precisely for positive gain can help you become more effective
  • Too much fear can debilitate you as a leader
  • A great degree of openness can help you embrace new ideas
  • Too much openness can delay or prevent completion of projects

Keywords: leadership, openness, fear, change


  • Kaiser, R. B., & Kaplan, R. B. (2006). The deeper work of executive development: Outgrowing sensitivities. The Academy of Management Learning & Education, 5(4), 463-483.
  • Krause, D. E. (2004). Influence-based leadership as a determinant of the inclination to innovate and of innovation-related behaviors: An empirical investigation. The Leadership Quarterly, 15(1), 79-102.
  • LePine, J. A., Colquitt, J. A., & Erez, A. (2000). Adaptability to changing task contexts: Effects of general cognitive ability, conscientiousness, and openness to experience. Personnel Psychology, 53(3), 563-593.
  • Suárez, J. G. (1993). Managing fear in the workplace (TQLO Publication No. 93-01). Department of the Navy TQL Office.
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