“What are you afraid of?”

As a performance coach, I ask this question a lot. In most businesses, fear makes the world go round. Love should do that––yes, even in business––but more on love later.

Time and time again, when I ask someone why they didn’t say what needed to be said, ask what needed to be asked, or do what needed to be done, the answer is some version of, “Well, I was afraid of” fill in the blank:

I was afraid of what people might think of me.

I was afraid of how my boss would react.

I was afraid I could be wrong.

I was afraid of making someone else wrong.

I was afraid of appearing too aggressive.

I was afraid of appearing egotistical.

I was afraid of making others uncomfortable.

I was afraid of putting someone on the spot.

I was afraid of causing a confrontation.

The list is endless.

Fear is the most destructive force in the universe, and that includes business. I find fear is most prevalent in large organizations within which I’ve coached, where fear drives absolutely everything. Virtually every thought, every decision, every action is motivated by fear of something or someone. You can imagine the impact this has on performance, let alone the quality of life experienced by those working in these companies.

Who raised these people? Were they not taught that we are each responsible for doing, saying, and asking what is right, regardless of the personal consequences?

Here’s the truth: they were raised by loving parents who taught them right from wrong. The problem isn’t their upbringing. It’s their leaders.

Far too many leaders thrive on fear. They cultivate it and use it to manipulate people. Whenever I’ve confronted such a leader––a rarity since these types of leaders avoid interacting with anyone who will tell them the truth––they always assert, “A little fear is a good thing. It keeps people in line.”

These fear mongers have bought into the idea that people must be directed and controlled to produce results. The irony is that they’ve embraced this paradigm because they fear that if they don’t, people won’t perform. They’re also afraid of learning how to lead in another way.

When I’m in the presence of such a leader, I see a frightened little boy or girl underneath the self-assured facade. They’re terrified of being authentic, scared to love those they lead, and afraid to change. They’re the worst to work with and for––and by far the most difficult to coach.

Unfortunately, they’re also everywhere, especially in traditional organizations where the good ole  boy network still thrives, and who you know and what they think of you speaks louder than your performance.

An extreme example: I came across an executive at a consulting firm who coerced his people into walking alone with him before the sun came up––as early as 3 or 4 a.m. An historical aside: Adolf Hitler employed the same technique. All of this executive’s people complied, even though most didn’t want to. When I asked them why, they all responded, “Because he determines my fate.”

Here’s the thing: no one determines your fate but you.

If you currently work in an organization with leaders like that executive, I’ve got some bad news. That form of leader is just about impossible to coach and almost never willing to even consider changing. Many are narcissistic, and any psychologist will tell you that the last person they want to see walk into their office is a narcissist. They’re considered un-treatable. They’re prisoners of fear, often carrying deep-seated feelings of unworthiness. If you stay around them too long, you run the risk of becoming their cellmate.

My advice? Run away as soon as you can. Find a leader who understands that love, not fear, is the way to move people to reach their potential and produce extraordinary results. While searching, don’t seek merely the comfort of a good salary and great benefits. Look for a leader who inspires you. When you’re in the presence of these men and women, you’ll know it. You’ll feel cared for and appreciated not just for the work you can do for them, but for who you are.