The Fear of the Finger

Finger Pointing2I’m afraid I’ve come to recognize a serious leadership deficit today in America. It’s probably nothing new. It’s what I call “the fear of the finger.” Not the middle finger, mind you. I’m talking about the index finger. Precious few individuals are willing to risk being on the other end of a finger that could end up being pointed at them. Especially when it turns into many fingers in high profile situations.

In other words, there is a great reluctance to take a stand in ambiguous or unpopular situations and declare, “If this doesn’t work, I’ll be the one who goes down with the ship.”

The great tragedy is that the opportunity for true leadership, the kind that welcomes responsibility and takes courageous and necessary risks in spite of the unknown – that kind of leadership, has never been in higher demand. Worse still, the kind of leadership that takes a stand is exactly the prerequisite to rallying others to unite and follow.

Is it so bad to be wrong, after all? The lengths “leaders” go to avoid blame many times far exceeds the amount of damage actually caused by a mistake. A business executive continues with a risky plan in spite of damning information in hopes it will work out because to turn back would be to appear to admit defeat. An education official gives in to a new testing standard, confident that it will fail but unwilling to propose an alternative. A politician refuses to support a bill drafted by an opponent because to do so would be to appear weak.

In the meantime, there is a long wake of losers. Shareholders lose. Customers lose. Employees lose. Students lose. Constituents all lose. And leaders lose their credibility in the process. The only people who win are the critics who say, “I told you so.” But is it really a win?

Additionally, many times the “fault” is actually no fault at all except a change in the external environment. Sometimes it can be anticipated, but many times not. The market changes, a new technology comes along, the weather fails to cooperate. (What do you think happens to the construction industry when winters run long?)

No matter how sure you are of success, something could come along and derail it. But that shouldn’t stop us from making the decisions that need to be made today. That’s what sets those of us who would be leaders apart. After all, it takes an exceeding amount of courage to lead.

So what can we do about it? Here are some thoughts:

  • Do a risk assessment.
  • Have a plan and a contingency plan.
  • In Colin Powell’s words, “Don’t take counsel of your fears.”
  • Set a good leadership example; when you make a mistake, admit it publicly.
  • Create environments where others feel secure in admitting their own mistakes. In Dale Carnegie’s words, “Make the fault seem easy to correct.”
  • Focus on lessons learned from both successes and failures. Then share them so they aren’t repeated.
  • Win and lose as teams, not as individuals. (The problem with “pin the tail on the donkey” is that no one wants to be the target).
  • Applaud people for adjusting course when they recognize that a situation has changed. Go a step further by lending your support when it’s needed.
  • Practice answering difficult questions with conviction and transparency. (You can’t appeal to noble motives unless you have them to begin with).
  • Explain what happened, but don’t make excuses. Take responsibility instead.
  • Offer hope.

If you’ve never had the finger pointed at you before, you’re a risky person for others to follow. Don’t be afraid. You will fall down and you will collect scars along the way. Will always be worth it? Unfortunately, there are no guarantees. But there’s no other way to lead than by example.

Nathan Magnuson is an executive leadership consultant, coach, facilitator and author of the books Stand Out! and Ignite Your Leadership Expertise. Click to see the exciting ways Nathan is helping organizations and teams become more effective.