Leadership Fear and the Stories We Tell

Speaking of leadership and the stories we tell ourselves, I recently read the following HBR interview with screenwriter Robert McKee, Storytelling that Moves People, which made me think profoundly:

“The great irony of existence is that what makes life worth living does not come from the rosy side. We would all rather be lotus-eaters, but life will not allow it.

“The energy to live comes from the dark side. It comes from everything that makes us suffer. As we struggle against these negative powers, we’re forced to live more deeply, more fully.”

Acknowledging this dark side inside of us makes us more authentic, don’t you think? For most, it’s a fear of failure. Yet it’s one of the hardest stories to admit to. No one wants to admit to their evil twin, or that we may be inadequate. We think we should repress that side of us, and rarely admit to it.

“One of the principles of good storytelling is the understanding that we all live in dread. Fear is when you don’t know what’s going to happen. Dread is when you know what’s going to happen and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.

“Death is the great dread; we all live in an ever shrinking shadow of time, and between now and then all kinds of bad things could happen.”

Not to be morbid, but it is somewhat comforting to know we all share common sentiments of fear and dread.

Death may be the great dread, according to McKee, but to many of us what is more real is failure. That is the great fear, failure or mediocrity.

Most of us repress this dread. We have strange ways of dealing with it. We get rid of it by inflicting it on other people through sarcasm, cheating, abuse, indifference — little unspoken cruelties.

We commit those little evils and somehow that relieves the pressure and makes us feel better. Then we rationalize our bad behavior and convince ourselves we’re good people. We are, after all, powerful leaders who can always justify our actions.

Institutions do the same thing: They deny the existence of the negative while inflicting their dread on other institutions or their employees.

If you’re a realist, you know that this is human nature. Cynics say that the imperative in nature is to follow the golden rule of survival: Do unto others what they do unto you, and usually before they do it to you…

More from McKee…

“In nature, if you offer cooperation and get cooperation back, you get along. But if you offer cooperation and get antagonism back, then you give antagonism in return—in spades.

“Ever since human beings sat around the fire in caves, we’ve told stories to help us deal with the dread of life and the struggle to survive.

“All great stories illuminate the dark side. I’m not talking about so-called “pure” evil, because there is no such thing. We are all evil and good, and these sides do continual battle.”

When I read this I had to sit back and think about it for quite a while. What about you? What are your thoughts? How do you deal with “the dread…?”

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