Facing fear and standing up to the ‘mini-Putins’
Like a lot of Swedes recently I’ve had one eye on the media as the Swedish navy hunts for a foreign submarine in the Stockholm archipelago. The reaction to this dangerous situation from world leaders says a lot about how reluctant we are to face fear. Fear makes us – well, fearful. So how do we tackle it? And how do we face people perceived as frightening? How do we deal with the ‘mini-Putins’ we all occasionally have to work with?
Remember the Cold War? I do. And it wasn’t just in the history books. Growing up as a teenager in Sweden I always knew the Soviet Union was our neighbour. OK the border was a marine one – the Baltic Sea – but when I watched the Soviet invasion of its neighbour Afghanistan in 1979 on TV with my Dad, it felt very close and very dangerous. There was nothing ‘remote’ about it at all. I remember our family even seriously discussing emigrating to Canada.
So watching recent events in the Ukraine, the Russian incursion into Swedish airspace, and now also maybe our waters touched a deep nerve. How do we act courageously as leaders in situations of potential fear and danger? And how do we face the ‘mini-Putins’ we all run into occasionally as we progress through our professional lives.
Face up to fear: Own it. Identify danger clearly
The first thing we have to do is find the courage to identify and name danger clearly. Many of my clients have told me that what sets our training apart is how we challenge people to explore their own fears – to identify exactly what stops them from being truly courageous.
A courageous leader sees reality for what it is – not what they want it to be. They strive to never confuse the two. Denying the reality of a dangerous situation, like all denial, is a defense mechanism based on fear. Choosing to see a scary situation for what it is takes courage.
In our present situation a courageous leader would dare to say: A nation’s territoral space have been violated. This is potentially dangerous, and this is where we draw the line. History teaches us over and over of the danger of choosing not to see, or not to say no. Of not drawing the line. Of trying to manage dictatorial and unreasonable behaviour through appeasing and compromising. Often with deadly results. So dare to draw the line now. One day it may be too late.
Courageous leaders change their mind
I think this situation too shows how important it is for leaders to sometimes admit: You know what? We got it wrong. Changing your mind can be a sign of intelligence. Of courage. It’s not always a weakness. Hearing that the Swedish defence force did not even have the necessary helicopters to go after what might be a foreign sub probably made a lot of people wonder if the defense cuts imposed year after year really were the right way forward. Again, maybe some politicians were confusing the reality they wanted to see with the potentially dangerous reality that exists. Denial can be costly. Let’s not make that mistake again. Politicians who repeatedly argued for escalating defence cuts would benefit now from finding the courage to say – you know what? We got it wrong.
Last year I saw an excellent interview with an Australian politician being grilled about a policy U-turn he’d recently made. When journalists bombarded him with accusing questions he replied unapologetically: “Guys,” he said. “It’s simple. I changed my bloody mind.”
End of post mortem. Beginning of constructive discussion of future direction.
There is no shame in re-evaluating strategy in new situations. Refusing to reevaluate during changing circumstances is not strong. It is fearful. Sometimes the bravest thing to do is admit we were wrong and focus the agenda on the future changes we need to make.
Who is Vladimir Putin?
Many people we think of as frightening are often themselves deeply afraid. Of being supplanted. Of losing power. Of losing status. They know how fear works. How fear can be managed. How easy it is to manipulate frightened people. They know how frightened people act, or, more importantly, don’t act.
An old-school Cold Warrior, Vladimir Putin rose up through the ranks of the KGB, a ruthlessly efficient organization run on fear, secrecy and internal rivalry. In an article I read recently Masha Gessen, the Russian writer of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, described how she arrived to interview Putin to find he had not been briefed at all by those around him. She realized straightaway that this was an isolated leader who had walled himself off from feedback and criticism of any kind. His colleagues were even afraid to tell him that someone might want to ask him an uncomfortable question.
Fear breeds fear. Frightening leaders are all too often afraid themselves. Courageous leadership breaks this vicious cycle. To make sure you act with courage you need to keep an eye on your own reactions and fears. Be prepared to stay curious about both yourself and the situation. By doing this you act the way the situation requires – and not as your fears tell you. Open, honest, transparent leadership can prove to be powerful.
What do you need to be warm and empathetic in a meeting with a ”mini Putin”?
How do you react when you feel unliked? How would you rather react?
We all come across individuals in our professional lives who people are afraid of. Individuals who avoid transparency and don’t see that their behaviour creates fear and anxiety. So what can we do when we encounter such a person?
Keep an eye on your own reactions
Fear is contagious. So don’t get infected yourself. Examine your own behaviour around such a person. Be aware of your reactions. Ask yourself what am I achieving with my present behaviour, and what do I want to achieve? Who do I want to be? You need to set your own goals and analyze your own behaviour to make sure you talk to this person as an equal.
Fear is a tone the mini-Putin already owns. So meeting cold fearful behaviour with more cold fearful behaviour will most likely get you nowhere. Most people don’t change their position if they feel threatened. Not even mini-Putin! So adopt a neutral, professional but warm tone. You are not there to frighten mini-Putin, but to state your case and discuss it clearly. Open, gracious warmth is a perfect antidote to icy fear. Keep in mind you’re communicating with someone who is afraid. Empathy is a powerful tool for any meeting.
If you shrink, if your instinct is to get smaller in an encounter with someone you find intimidating it could be because you are hoping to avoid conflict. Conflict is sometimes necessary. No conflict – no resolution. If you find yourself shrinking ask yourself clearly – what is it I’m trying to avoid here? What am I scared of? Remind yourself of what you want to achieve. Most likely you’ll want to hold you head high and talk calmly and clearly. Probably do not show nerves. And don’t apologize for your opinions.
Liberate yourself from your need to be liked
When we shrink ourselves it is often because we want to be liked. Many find it easier to set boundaries by diminishing their need to be liked. The fact is, you probably don’t need mini-Putins to like you. But you do need them to respect you. (This probably goes for the real Vladimir Putin too!) Remember: It is most likely you are not doing business with mini-Putin to be liked – but to get an important job done.
Ask yourself – how important is it on a scale of 1 to 10 that this person likes me? More often than not, being liked is not your professional goal here. Communicating and achieving your strategic goals is.
Be crystal clear about what you want to achieve, and how you are going to communicate it before your meeting. And stick to that. Remember: Fear is fuzzy. It thrives on secrecy and ambivalence. Needing to be liked often makes us vague. It can make us amend and dilute our message whilst we are communicating with mini-Putins. Concentrate on your goals. Concentrate on communicating clearly and increasing your curiosity about your own behaviour, so that you stick to your plan instead of letting your fear make the decisions for you.