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Drive out fear: Of failure, of embarrassment, of not knowing what to do

  • Published
  • By Col. Hans Ritschard
We've all felt that sinking, gut-wrenching sensation telling us, "You don't have what it takes," or in the worst case, "I'd be better off somewhere else." Fear is a natural reaction to uncertainty, danger, and unexpected change.

Fear in the duty section can shut us down, even today. I recall a day, when I was a captain, when my boss screamed at me, turning red in the face in a misguided attempt to correct my behavior. Not only was I instantly done being productive for the day, I was fearful I could no longer work for him.

Such fear in the workforce is not new. In the fearsome aftermath of World War II, Dr. W. Edwards Deming, an American statistician and leadership expert, proposed 14 leadership rules for putting Japanese industry back on its feet. Rule number eight was simple: drive out fear!

By this he meant eliminating management practices that relied on fear to motivate people, whether by threats, intimidation, retaliation, angry outbursts, or by any other means. He recognized that fear in the workplace could lead to a loss of confidence, a loss of productivity and, perhaps most concerning, a loss of trust and teamwork among coworkers.

What should we do if we sense fear among our Airmen? We must build a culture of trust. To build trust, leaders must listen, encourage followers' ideas, listen some more, throw away the hammer when honest mistakes are made, and continue to listen and interact. Leaders must keep high standards for excellence, knowing that Airmen are most engaged and fulfilled when their work is challenging and rewarding. A culture of trust leads to a culture of confidence. A culture of confidence leads to a culture of trust.

In Global Strike Command, we are undergoing significant cultural changes--we are resisting micromanagement, pushing authority to those who have the information, recognizing mistakes as opportunities to improve, and building integrity and transparency with honest self-assessments and determined process improvements.

As Lt. Gen. Wilson, Commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, said during a recent visit, "We start with good people, we give them training and experience which builds their pride and confidence, they become personally and professionally fulfilled and engaged in executing the mission. And we [as leaders] get out of the way so they can do their jobs."

Whether leading a group, a squadron, a flight, or just one junior Airman, we build confidence in our subordinates by driving out their natural fears and anxieties. We want them to take pride in their work.

Like my high school swim team coach Bob Johnson used to do, we try to catch them doing the right thing, and cheer them on. Coach "J" only signed us up for two kinds of races: those we could win and those that would challenge us.

As leaders, we do the same with those we lead by giving them two kinds of tasks: those we know they can do already and those that challenge and help them learn along the way. When they succeed, we boost our team confidence by celebrating together.

Like a good coach, a great leader invests in Airmen by demonstrating true concern for their well-being while pushing them to perform beyond their own expectations. We drive fear out of our units with genuine praise for a job well done, with a vision for the future that instills pride and confidence, and with persistent trust that Airmen will rise to meet the thrilling adventure of serving our great United States Air Force.