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June 26, 2016
Friends will know that I have long half-joked that Eric Morecambe was a great 20th century philosopher who had a ‘theory of fear’. “Oh yes… it’s all based on fear you know.” is something he would randomly drop into interviews and conversations. In all likelihood he was talking about comedy, and the life and career of the comic. But, after all, comedy tells us a lot about the primitive human psyche and it suits me to imagine that maybe he was making a more universal observation on life.
Fear is one of the most powerful emotions. In the short term fear, and the dramatic physiological changes it wreaks in us, can entirely hijack our thought processes, reactions and intentions. In the longer term chronic fear, little spurts of dread administered from time to time, can re-shape our judgement, our perception of the world, our character and our capacity for compassion. Fear drives us inward… if not to the self then to the family, the clan, or the tribe. People like us.
When people are in fear, when that fear itself brings danger – as when a crowd threatens to bolt and crush some of its members underfoot – there are two things that true leaders can do.
They can seek to calm that fear. Simply to earth and dissipate its power – because at that moment the fear, often unfounded or out of proportion, is itself the biggest threat to people.
Or, if the fear is in part justified, they can investigate, identify solutions and then advocate those solutions… showing the way out in a reasonable way, and so again dissipating the fear itself.
But there are people who see fear as an opportunity, something to be stoked and exploited rather than cured. These are people who use fear to their own selfish ends, for their own personal gain and aggrandisement or – perhaps even worse – to pull down structures and institutions in order to satisfy their abstract and eccentric world views. Or both!
These people are not leaders. We should never reward them for their actions, even if they seem sober and a little chastened the morning after when they look around at the ruins. Equity and justice suggest that we should not reward them. But also prudence suggests that we should not create a precedent for those who might, in the future, seek to gain by shouting “fire!” in a crowded theatre.
Let’s look for leaders now. Let’s look for people who, when fear starts to get a grip on an organisation or a nation, instinctively seek to reassure, understand, advocate, plan and implement.
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