Why Bad Leaders Fall in Love with Fear

Why Bad Leaders Fall in Love with Fear

“Don’t make decisions based on irrational fears.”

When the Coronavirus first appeared on the news, it was a distant epidemic and seemed like nothing to fear (at least for those of us outside of China). As the virus spread, everyone’s feelings evolved and eventually manifested into widespread fear as businesses closed, and stock markets plummeted.  

While we’ve been taught that fear is bad, that isn’t all true. Fear is simply an emotion of the mind and it’s triggered by the perception of danger, whether that danger is real or imagined. Leaders now have the choice to either fall in love with fear and allow it to crush their team or to use fear to fuel their future. 

Take Steven, an experienced division president of an established company, for example. As the Coronavirus threat increased, he fell in love with fear. He became consumed with reading and watching the news. In every email or conversation, he talked about the “struggle” and “how hard and difficult” times were going to be, without ever focusing on how they were going to address these challenges. His team followed suit, and at this point, all productivity and achievement have screeched to a halt.  

You see, there are two kinds of fear: rational and irrational. Steven let the irrational fear take over. 

Rational Fear

Our brains are wired to keep us safe, so not all fear is bad. Rational fear keeps us humble, teachable, and respectful of real threats. It allows us to continue to be others-centered, think powerfully, and maintain a sound mind. Rational fear knows it’s ok to experience the emotions of the mind, but not allow it to take hold of us.  

For example, the threat of danger in the current environment is real. Many people are becoming sick and dying because of the Coronavirus. Rational fear tells us it’s wise to practice social distancing, wash our hands, and work remotely.  

Irrational Fear

If we aren’t careful, rational fear can turn into irrational fear. Irrational fear can choke growth, stifle innovation, drain our courage, and paralyze us into inaction. If that wasn’t enough, it can lead to inactivity and a lethargic state of being. 

Irrational fear manifests what is feared. It turns itself into anxiety, worry, and panic that spirals of control. It only allows you to focus on what negative things “might” or “could” happen in the future. Don’t make decisions based on irrational fears.

Don’t make decisions based on irrational fears.

The most significant obstacle leaders face today is their teams falling into a cloud of irrational fear and doubt. So to help you overcome this obstacle, here are a few things you can do to mitigate these fears for your team: 

Level set on the facts

It’s going to be damn near impossible to overcome irrational fear if you are dealing with feelings over facts. Your job is to be educated on the facts of the situation to the best of your ability.  

This doesn’t mean you need to know the exact number of reported worldwide cases and deaths caused by COVID-19. It does mean establishing a baseline with your employees on their “new normal” including working from home policies, how to company is appropriately responding to the virus, and what you and the company are doing to prevent massive layoffs. 

Admit you’re concerned 

People believe leaders who show their vulnerability and admit their concern when faced with a difficult situation. Just this week, Jeff Bezos sent a company-wide letter to all employees at Amazon and he started it with a powerful statement: “This isn’t business as usual, and it’s a time of great stress and uncertainty. It’s also a moment in time when the work we are doing is most critical.”

Bezos is telling his team that he is concerned and uncertain. It’s a powerful lesson in leadership because he knows they are thinking about those things as well (in addition to working in stressful situations and putting themselves in harm’s way). To act like nonchalant would have been a massive mistake.  

Inspire action

The way forward and to help any problematic situation is through action. You can’t tell your team to do, you must inspire action. In Building the Best, I wrote about the role a leader has to play to inspire or “breathe life into” their people. 

One of the best ways to inspire action is to focus on words that remind people of their purpose and help them stay positive. Bezos did a phenomenal job of this by saying, “It’s also a moment in time when the work we are doing is most critical.”  

In recent research by Todd Herman of 29 CEO’s and how they are reacting to the Coronavirus, he found some stark differences in strategy-focused CEOs and fear-focused CEOs.

Strategy-focused CEOs are: 

  • 9 Times more likely to be shifting product/service offerings.
  • 6 Times more likely to use words like ‘action’ and ‘opportunity.’

Be thoughtful of the words you use to your team because it will help create a better reality. 

Turn to hope and courage

The antidote to irrational fear is hope. Hope is an optimistic state of mind that is based on positive outcomes. When hope is at the center of people’s minds instead of fear, it leads to courageous actions.  

Mark Twain famously said, “Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear.” Harry S. Truman shared similar sentiments when he said, “America was not built on fear. America was built on courage, on imagination and unbeatable determination to do the job at hand.”

Have faith and rely on hope when communicating with your team. While the outcomes might not be exactly what they were a month ago, you’ll give your team the best chance for creating positive outcomes in the current situation. 


Here’s the best part about fear: you choose your thoughts and how you lead others. Are you going to level set on the facts, admit your concern, inspire others, and turn to hope or are you going to allow irrational fear to take over?  

What do you do to provide hope to your people? Do you agree?

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About the Author John Eades is the CEO of LearnLoft, a leadership development company making victual training easy and effective. He was named one of LinkedIn’s Top Voices in Management & Workplace. John is also the author of Building the Best: 8 Proven Leadership Principles to Elevate Others to Success and host of the “Follow My Lead” Podcast, a show that transfers stories and best practices from today’s leaders to the leaders of tomorrow. You follow him on Instagram @johngeades.