Leading Through Fear: Why Leaders Use It and How Tom Cruise Demonstrates Ways to Actively Avoid It

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Have you ever heard a manager say something to the tune of, “I want my staff to be a little afraid of me.” I cringe whenever someone in a position of power utters such a remark. I don’t think the individual is condoning all-out fright, but they are certainly shortchanging (or confusing) the power of being respected.

Fear-based leadership is not a new style of leading. Time has shown that the short-term gains of instilling fear cannot be denied—it’s quicker and easier than building trust, employees are attentive, and the leader can more readily control others. Plus, research shows that angry leaders are perceived to wield more power. However (you knew there’d be a “however”), fear also creates a heightened sense of anxiety that leads to despair… and despair leads to inaction… and inaction leads to significantly lower productivity, creativity, engagement, development, risk taking, etc.

Fear doesn’t motivate toward constructive action. On the contrary, it nourishes competition within an organization, fosters short-term thinking, destroys trust, erodes joy and pride in work, stifles innovation and distorts communication.— Kathleen D. Ryan & Daniel K. Oestreich

Here are a few things I’ve learned about leaders who rely on fear:

  • They are hiding their insecurities. While attempting to project a visage of intimidation, these leaders are really seen as lacking the intelligence and/or confidence to mount a compelling defense of their ideas.
  • They are lazy. Displaying hostility is a shortcut to doing the hard work of building relational equity.
  • They mistake obedience with loyalty. Silence is not always agreement, following directives is not always drive, and creating a false sense of urgency is not always motivation.
  • They hinder innovation. Fear generates individuals who are concerned for their jobs. The primary motive becomes security over disrupting norms in creative new ways.
  • They chip away at confidence. By constantly pointing out the shortcomings of others, it seems obvious that certainty, conviction, and self-assurance will fade.

If the pro’s of fear-based leadership still seem to outweigh the con’s, I have no choice but to unleash one of the most successful actors of all time—Tom Cruise. Cruise built a career out of nothing, managing to remain relevant and popular for over thirty years (a rare feat in Hollywood) with numerous blockbuster films that have grossed over 9 billion dollars and a steady stream of accolades.

With this resume, Cruise is in an esteemed class of society where he has the clout and resources to force others to do whatever he wants. He can insult, ignore, and demand loyalty. Yet he chooses to go the other way. From a recent article:

Zac Efron tells of the time Cruise taught him to ride a motorcycle, inviting Efron to his house, showing him how a motorcycle engine works, and giving a tour of Cruise’s hangar where he stores his bike collection. When asked why, Efron said, “I don’t know. I don’t even want to know. It’s just so cool that he gave a shit, the fact that he cared at all. No one else did that.”

While filming in Los Angeles, Bill Hader found out about an attempted car bombing in New York. He was a new dad and wanted to get home. Cruise took over production, completing two days worth of work in 45 minutes and personally booking Hader a flight home that evening.

When working with Jake Johnson on The Mummy, Cruise invited Johnson to his personal gym. Johnson was hesitant after someone on set insisted he wait until after Cruise was done working out so the star could have the gym to himself. When Cruise found out, he was livid, telling Johnson, “Let me make something crystal clear: I don’t care what anybody on the crew says to you, they don’t know what I’m saying to you. And I’m saying to you that you are always welcome. I don’t care what I’m doing in there. You’re not other. You’re my castmate.”

If you need one more, Cruise has sent Dakota Fanning a birthday gift every year since she was eleven.

These are not isolated incidents; there are countless other examples of Cruise imparting generosity and kindness. And what does he get out of it? Respect. Trust. Loyalty. Admiration. A willingness to work harder, be more dedicated, and a myriad of other intangibles that we all need to be a successful leader.

You may think Cruise has nothing in common with you (and let’s be honest, the similarities are probably minimal), but you are both leaders. And as such, those who follow you are likely to be intimidated by the power you hold. This means they are predisposed to be fearful of you. You can revel in this or, like Cruise, actively attempt to put them at ease.

Ultimately, the choice to be feared is yours. Sure, it makes you more of a boss than a leader. And sure, a threat will produce a faster work product than saying please. But if the most successful people, like Tom Cruise, don’t use it to lead teams, what makes you think it’s the right choice for you? Put in the work to build collaboration and earn respect rather than trying to demand. You’ll be better off in the long haul.

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