By Eddie Pipkin
You might have picked up on my great affection for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is one of my favorite stories of any season, not just Christmas. It’s perfect in structure, effective in imaginatively exploring big themes and influential as a literary and cultural phenomenon. I’ve read it dozens of times and seen most of its iterations on screen, but this year I noticed something in a way I hadn’t before. I discovered a new appreciation for the way Scrooge has structured his life based on fear. He has closed himself off to the world’s blessings, even though he can well afford to enjoy them, not merely because he is irascible by nature, but because he is afraid. His acumen and his resources mean that he could be acting as a beloved leader in his community – which he does in the redeemed future that the end of the story delivers – but before that redemption happens, his fear locks him in unhealthy patterns. As for us as leaders, as we consider the year 2022 and how we will lead through its challenges and opportunities, does fear define us and our choices? Or does something more hopeful and free?
Within the story, Scrooge famously lives a constricted, miserly life (gruel for dinner, an inadequate fire, etc.). As his nephew, Fred, notes, he has prodigious wealth but derives no joy from it whatsoever. It’s easy to write Scrooge off as a bitter, mean-spirited old coot, but when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows him scenes from his earlier life, we are able to gain some empathy for him. Sent to a boarding school and kept apart from his family for years by a grieving father, Scrooge has a natural fear of losing what he loves. Later, as a young apprentice and beginning in business, he is in love and engaged to Belle, but he is so obsessed with acquiring enough wealth to build the perfect life before they can marry that she leaves him, stating that his love of money has overtaken all. From Scrooge’s perspective, he wants to build a fortress of security for them both before they begin their married life together, but for her, his priorities are all wrong.
Fear warps our priorities. Fear cuts us off from possibilities. Fear narrows our options and leads us into paths that divert us from our true goals. The Bible is filled with verses that counsel us to substitute faith for fear (such as Isaiah 41:10 : “Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.”). Of course, it is one thing to embrace the concept of living without fear, but it is another thing altogether to lead without fear day to day as we are making decisions.
There are many ways that fear clouds our judgment (to quote from a different cultural icon, in this case, Yoda):
- Fear of the Unknown: Basically, we are uncomfortable with setting anything in motion that means we won’t be able to know what happens next. This fear is not limited to leaders – we all share it in common as human beings, and all the other fears on this list are primarily iterations of this fear of not knowing what the future holds. Our basic instinct, if we are feeling unsafe and unsure, is to keep things simple and constrict the possibilities for how things can branch into events we can’t foretell. If our fear of the unknown paralyzes us so that we are unwilling to take chances, we’ll never know the things that might have grown. People will sense this stagnation. People, like dogs, can smell fear.
- Fear of Loss of Control: The fear of the unknown is a product of our desire to be in control. If we can control what happens next, we convince ourselves that we can have control over outcomes, keeping them positive and in our favor. We don’t like to give up control. This is how we end up trying to micro-manage everything happening in our organization. This is how we end up pretending to solicit input and feedback instead of truly valuing input and feedback and giving other ideas a chance to flourish. If we insist on controlling all outcomes, we end up with a gnarled and twisted version of our view of how the world should work, and we lose the wonderful possibilities of alternate views (some of which would be beautiful variations on our own vision). It is Scrooge’s insistence on trying to control in detail all aspects of his life and his future that lead to his sad and lonely rooms in later years. Even as he awakens to redemption on Christmas morning, one of the first changes we see him making is letting go and letting others make their contributions to his life.
- Fear of Exposure: When we begin to open up to other ideas and perspectives, when we begin to give other people a voice, we are acutely aware that we may be exposed as a fraud! People may find out that we don’t know everything! There is expertise beyond our purview. There are things we don’t have the skill set to move forward – technology we may need help in mastering – concepts that don’t excite us, which we’ll have to hand off to someone else if they are to come to life. This is the path to humility. Humility is one of the best and most Christlike of characteristics of any leader. Publicly demonstrating humility makes us better, and it makes our teams better.
- Fear of Ceding Power: In order to bring other people into the mix of decision making – real decision making and leadership, not the version in which we are just giving a nod to that concept while retaining all true control and power for ourselves – we will have to be committed to giving up some of our power so that other people may be empowered. This is a dealbreaker for some. Some of us take our ordained leadership as a sacred calling which means that we must be the ultimate signal caller on all issues at all times. But shared power leads to best governance. It leverages the strengths of an organization, and it allows us to support one another even as any given individual is having a temporary tough stretch. Shared governance and shared leadership unequivocally lead to deeper creativity in an organization.
- Fear of Not Getting the Credit: This is real. We sometimes sabotage ideas because it’s clear that if they are successful, somebody besides us is going to reap the harvest of accolades. It’s another version of ceding power, but it’s a nasty variation, and if we identify it in ourselves we should nip it in the bud. Humility not only means allowing other people to take the credit (even if we did, indeed, provide critical leadership) but finding the grace to take joy in other people being celebrated. If we are truly comfortable in ourselves, we have space to be happy for other people and their accomplishments — and the more people accomplishing things, the more life will be apparent in our organization.
- Fear of Failure: If we put ourselves out there – if we take risks – failure may follow. In truth, failure is sure to follow if we are trying new things. It is folly to establish the avoidance of failure as a metric to judge our success. We know this truth, but the fear of failure is so ingrained in our training and in our life experience (by evidence of the many times that we have failed and been judged harshly for it), that we reflexively react against any suggestion that seems, at first glance, as a possibility for failure. Such thinking can only be overcome by a disciplined approach that sees that reflexive instinct for what it is and counteracts it with a healthy, realistic (and optimistic) assessment of the potential outcomes of any decision. We must also redefine our metrics: avoidance of failure cannot be the only criteria for success!
- Fear of Success: On the other hand, success has its own challenges. Too much success can be overwhelming. We have all seen ideas succeed so successfully that they have quickly become a major new, time-consuming initiative. At the least, we would love to be able to throttle success to a sustainable level, to an expenditure of effort and resources that we can, at least – say it with me, kids – control. Success, however, is good, and when we fear growth that is too fast or programs that may become too popular, what really has been exposed are the holes in our leadership approach. If we have strong organizational skills, we can manage success. Identifying this fear and probing for its root causes and how to deal with those root causes is a great example of how a thoughtful exploration of our fears can lead us to a stronger development of our own capabilities.
- Fear of Too Much Work: This fear is real, and it’s not limited to the guaranteed extra work that comes with a successful idea taking flight. More work also results from pursuing an idea that doesn’t achieve lift-off. More work comes from trying anything new, anything more, anything extra. And let’s be honest, there are plenty of leaders who are not interested in more work, even if it’s Kingdom work. They have a set routine to for the set number of things on their to-do list (which, to their credit, they may be doing with recognized excellence), and they are not looking to upset the apple cart. However, an unwillingness to change things up is a prescription for eventual stagnation. We need to change and adapt and adjust, because the context around us is constantly changing – our neighborhoods, the life cycles of the people in our congregation, the culture, etc. — all are steadily changing. The solution for not being overwhelmed by too much work is to delegate, to empower, and to train others to take on critical leadership. If you are not doing this already, however, it is, of course, also more work. But it is some of the best work in which we can ever invest.
The lessons from A Christmas Carol are timeless. They aren’t just for the Christmas season. They are a great motivator for New Year’s, too, as we consider how we will resolve to be better leaders. Are we held back by fear? You can undoubtedly add some of your own variations to the list I’ve provided. How does fear express itself in your own leadership style? How might things be different in the year(s) ahead if you counter-acted that fear with some courageous risk taking, with putting your faith in others, with letting go and embracing an uncertain but exciting future? Set your fear-tester on “max” in the days ahead. Have conversations with your leadership teams about ferreting out fear in your decision making. See what bold steps may ensue.
We’re wishing you all the best for an unpredictable but blessing-filled 2022. Happy New Year!