Having spent much of my time with country and company leaders – formerly as a senior financial journalist, latterly as the CEO of a board search firm – it no longer astounds me to feel the fear.
The question simply becomes one of figuring out what fear is dominant in the person in front of me.
Take Rajat Gupta, former chief of McKinsey, who sat on the boards of Goldman Sachs and Procter & Gamble: three companies that need no introduction and a global leader whose blue-chip reputation matched those of the corporates he was involved with. Yet in 2011, Gupta was charged by the US SEC in the largest insider trading case in US history. Prison followed.
For him, the fear of not having enough money drove him to the point of flinging away a lifetime’s achievement. Retiring with investments worth about £100m may seem comfortable enough, but it is all about comparisons with one’s peers. Mixing with billionaires makes the millions look measly.
Gupta is far from alone. A number of former statesmen besmirch their reputations on the back of this specific fear, be it German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and his cosying up to Gazprom or UK Prime Minister Tony Blair and his dealings in Sierra Leone. Unlike Gupta, who called a hedge fund founder with insider tips about the companies whose boards he sat on, there is nothing essentially illegal in the actions of these two ex-political leaders. But, my, do their business dealings leave a sour taste in one’s mouth.
Fascinatingly, one of the other most common fears encountered at top leader level is dread of criticism. Given that the sine qua non of leadership is taking decisions which will never please everyone, this sensitivity is astounding.
The corporate cost of a CEO’s not accepting the worth of strategic disagreements from board members and executives can be devastating, leading to company stagnation and employee disenchantment. Questioning the leader’s decisions is perceived as censuring and becomes the equivalent of high treason. The consequence for that executive’s career is the modern equivalent of “off with their heads”: posting to Timbuktu and/or exclusion from decision-making.
Years ago, I interviewed Iran’s central bank governor. Inflation was out of control and yet Mahmoud Ahmadinejad wanted interest rates kept low for political purposes. I voiced doubt about Ebrahim Sheibany’s ability to face up to his political supremo, known for a fearsome temper. He insisted he had shouting matches with the President in a bid to bring in some sensible economic policies.
The veteran central banker was telling the truth. A few months later, he had a new job as Ambassador to Austria, Slovenia and Slovakia. Additionally, there is fear of success. Successful leaders, whose paths are strewn with praise, know that the Gods can turn against them from one day to the next. Some shrug it off and are bold in their next endeavour. But others walk through life with the careful tread of a pensioner, hoping that by cautious behaviour they will stave off the evil day when failure will take over from triumph. As a result, in a world that changes at a faster rate than ever before, they will not reproduce their earlier achievement.
In an age where executives are virtually banned from using the word “problem” – “challenge” is the politically correct terminology – admitting to fears is unacceptable in a corporate context. Thus, it is all the more refreshing to hear Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, use the phrase “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?”
What, gentle reader, is your greatest fear? Conquering it, other than in sporadic instances, may be too much to ask, but naming your fear ensures its damaging consequences can be minimised.
Karina Robinson is partner, Robinson Hambro and former editor-in-chief of The Banker