Don’t lead by fear or praise
Myrna Selzler Park - Sep 10, 2020 - Columnists

Photos: Contributed

I stand, frozen. A statue. I forget the noise and the bustle of the tourists in the Accademia Gallery in Florence.

I am lost in the rapture, one of millions who have stared in frozen awe since 1504, when David was completed.

He is awe-inspiring. Beautiful. Sublime.

My chest tightens, but my heart soars, as I stare up at the 17-foot, 12,000-pound statue of the biblical shepherd who would become king of Israel after defeating the giant Goliath with a slingshot.

“The sculpture is already complete within the marble block, before I start my work. It is already there. I just have to chisel away the superfluous material.”

I’d heard Michelangelo’s famous quote before. But another quote resonated almost as much, stopped the wine glass halfway to my mouth.

“What I really found fascinating, though, was seeing all of his unfinished statues,” my well travelled friend said as he shut his eyes and remembered his encounter with one of the greatest works of art created by the equally sublime artist.

“Carvings of images of people emerging from the stone, but trapped mid-step, mid-life forever. That was far more moving than the perfection of David.”

I let the words settle. I visualized the unlived lives. The unsaid goodbyes. Talent emerging, but never flourishing. That’s what Michelangelo left behind.

Dozens of his incomplete works, but still mesmerizing masterpieces, are on display in Florence.

How many incomplete potential masterpieces have I left in my wake as a leader?

Am I trapped in an outdated view of what it means to be a leader?

Has that trapped my people in stone?

Do I lead by fear, or do I lead by praise?

Or is there a third way?

What would happen if, instead of leading by fear or praise, I led by encouragement, showing my people I value them and I care about their future?

If I remind them that their past accomplishments are a predictor of their future successes?

I recalled a time when I believed the proverbial carrot or the stick, praise or fear, were the only two ways to lead.

As an inexperienced leader, I didn’t think to ask why. I just knew they weren’t doing what I had asked them to do.

My frustration mounted. I made the unconscious decision to lead by fear.

My irritation grew every time I saw the boxes of brochures. Boxes, as tall as David, were collecting dust at the front desk. My team had committed to distributing the contents. And they hadn’t. I had no idea why.

“Oh, I thought Bill and his team had committed to getting the brochures out,” one of my people told me as I dug my fingernails into my palms and walked into my office, slamming the door.

To ensure they understood my frustration, I stood on the boardroom table at our weekly meeting and tossed dollar bills into the air. They scattered like leaves falling from a tree in a windstorm.

Like the dollars spent on the brochures.

They hung their heads in embarrassment and shame, refusing to meet my eyes, or my anger.

Rather than teaching them to live up to their commitments, my behaviour taught them to hide.

And the fear trapped them in figurative stone. Given my action, and my anger, they were not going to ask for clarification about how they should pass out the brochures.

Leading by fear stifles initiative and creativity.

Leading by fear fosters blaming behaviour.

Fear causes people to hide, not tell the complete story. They don’t tell you what they really think.

They just go through the motions without buy-in. And in this case, they weren’t even going through the motions.

Team members led by fear duck into the bathroom or put their heads down as they hear familiar chill-inducing footsteps echo down the hall, like the solid ping of the carver’s hammer.

Leading by praise sounds nice, but it, too, is a damaging leadership strategy.

Leading by praise is hierarchical. The praiser holds the knowledge, the power; they are the benevolent one.

The person receiving praise is the grateful recipient, hungry for a positive word. Praise can become an addiction.

Behaviours change to get that rush of dopamine.

Carved into my memory from early in my career, praise given to me completely missed the mark.

Breezing into the office one afternoon, I was proud as could be. I’d made a big sale.

As I cruised by my sales manager’s office, he looked up and nodded approvingly, “My, you look nice today.”

I look nice? My success high crashed. I dressed professionally because it got me in the door and I made sales.

Did you forget I made a big sale? My biggest ever. How about praising me for that?

The trite acknowledgement of my appearance felt like a marble fist to my solar plexus.

The lack of acknowledgement of my sales success crumbled my enthusiasm like marble flakes on the chisel.

My manager didn’t know it, but I left my job that day.

Praise for what I considered expected behaviour did not create a desire for extraordinary behaviour. It reinforced and even seemed to value mediocrity.

What I needed after that big sale was encouragement.

I needed to hear something affirming and forward-looking from my leader.

“OK, now you know what to do. What did you learn from this? What did you do well? How can you do it better next time?” Encouragement like this from my manager would have changed everything.

Fear and praise are the blocks of stone trapping our people from realizing their potential.

Words of encouragement gently chisel the superfluous stone away so our people emerge more confident, more fulfilled, more capable.

“People go further than they thought they could when someone else thinks they can,” said leadership guru John Maxwell, who believes leadership is 51% encouragement.

Let encouragement be your chisel that allows potential to emerge.

Create more Davids.

 Myrna Selzler Park is a lifelong entrepreneur who works with organizations and individuals to turn their passion into impact. As former owner of Century 21 Assurance in Kelowna, Myrna uses her experience to build value in organizations. She is certified in behaviour and motivation analysis, emotional intelligence, as well as being a growth curve strategist and a certified value builder advisor. As a wannabe athlete, Myrna has run several half-marathons, deadlifted 215 pounds and has now put her mind to becoming proficient in Muay Thai kickboxing. She can be reached at [email protected]

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