Causes of Leadership Failure – Fear of Competition From Followers


Fear of Followers?The leader who fears that one of his followers may take his position is practically sure to realize that fear sooner or later. Able leaders train understudies to whom they may delegate at will. Only in this way may leaders multiply themselves and prepare to be at many places, and give attention to many things, at one time. It is an eternal truth that people receive more pay for their ability to get others to perform than they could possibly earn by their own efforts. Efficient leaders may, through knowledge of their jobs and the magnetism of their personalities, greatly increase the efficiency of others, and induce them to render more service and better service than they could by themselves. – Napoleon Hill

[This is the fourth in a series discussing the causes of leadership failure presented by Napoleon Hill]

It’s a common sentiment: Don’t teach others everything you know, or else one day they may take your job. If you’re a business owner, that maxim reads slightly differently: Don’t teach employees everything you know, or else one day they’ll be your competition. There’s some truth in both statements. The sad fact is, sometimes the person we train ends up filling our shoes when we’re “downsized” (or whatever popular euphemism you prefer). Additionally, our best employees are often ambitious as well, leading them to strike out on their own. Therefore, it makes sense to worry about competition from your followers…right? Wrong, and here’s why.

How Fear Holds You Back

Most leaders want their organizations to grow. In fact, even if your goal is maintaining the status quo, you need growth. Why? Because part of life is decay, and that’s true in business as well. Whether it’s due to retirement, attrition, or economic factors such as cost-of-living increases, to do the same thing this year likely costs more than it did a year ago, and definitely more than it did five years ago. If you function in an environment of fear, particularly the fear that your followers will compete with and surpass you, growth can’t take place. Here are some reasons why this is true:

  • Fear prevents delegation. In order to grow effectively, it’s imperative that you delegate responsibility. This allows an organization to function even when you, the leader, is not available. Delegation involves trust, and trust can’t exist in an environment of fear.
  • Fear inhibits innovation. If you’re afraid your followers can outshine you, then you’re less likely to adopt any of their ideas. You don’t want them to seem smarter, more inventive, and more progressive than you. A manager in fear of the abilities of his followers is also more likely to take credit for the ideas of others, and that’s a guaranteed way to insure no one offers you any quality suggestions. Because of this, you, your team, and the organization as a whole suffers.
  • Fear stymies communication. Communication is a two-way street. Good communication has its roots in trust. You trust the other person to communicate with you honestly, and expect them to listen to you. Matthew J. Geiger wrote an insightful article on this. In it, he touched on managers’ fear that their employees surpass them. Ultimately, that fear kills communication and prevents the achieving of objectives.
  • Fear kills motivation. Let’s face it, if you’re in an environment where your manager or team leader is only out for him or herself, seeks to bury your ideas, take all credit for the work of the team, and throw you to the wolves to safe face, that’s one serious buzzkill! Under those circumstances, why would anyone strive to excel? The leader’s fear turns everyone into drones simply seeking to make it through the day without causing any waves, and that does no one any good.
  • Fear fosters alienation. According to an article in Gallup Business Journal where they interviewed Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, what followers need most is for leaders to promote “trust, compassion, stability, and hope.” They need leaders to connect with them on significant levels so that, even though they have vastly different perspectives, they can all be on the same page. Fear throws all of that out a window. Instead of pulling together, fear keeps leaders and followers apart. This separation promotes alienation, which in turn means your followers won’t claim the company’s vision as their own. That’s the start of a potentially massive downhill slide.

It’s clear: Fear of being surpassed by one’s followers does more harm to you and your organization than any perceived good resulting from “protecting your position.” Yet how do you deal with the fact that sometimes our best and brightest learn what we teach and ‘move on up’ like the Jeffersons?

Change Your View or Change Your Paradigm

New Paradigm

Sometimes you just need a need a new paradigm.

It’s important to recognize two things. First, it’s not every person that will outshine you to the point of replacing or surpassing you. A study conducted by Hakenes and Katolnik discovered that with a large enough group of followers, delegation of tasks results in a reduced risk of being replaced (although it also reduces the chance of identifying a star performer). So if you have a large group of people reporting to you, chances are delegation poses little risk. Second, even if your group is small (thereby increasing the risk of replacement), understand that growth is natural and inevitable. You can’t prevent it, so stop worrying about it. Take a different view of what’s happening, and you’ll be less stressed.

If that last part brings little comfort, there is something else you can do. If changing your view about the way things work isn’t working for you, then change your paradigm. Find a way to structure your business so that anyone who excels to the point of surpassing you, perhaps becoming the leader of his or her own team, still benefits you. You’ll find this paradigm in most direct sales organizations, and it may transfer well to your particular line of work.

Fear of competition from followers is an ingrained part of modern corporate culture for many, but a truly great leader rises above this cause of leadership failure. By shaking of this fear, he or she creates a positive work environment. By proper delegation, the effective leader promotes innovation and communication, spurs motivation, and virtually eliminates any feelings of alienation by his or her followers. That benefits the organization as a whole, the followers in general, and the leader in particular.

Do you find yourself fearful that your followers (employees, team members, etc.) are competing with you? If yes, have you managed to handle your fear, and if so, how did you do it? Share your thoughts and stories in the Comments below.

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9 thoughts on “Causes of Leadership Failure – Fear of Competition From Followers

  1. The whole idea behind having a team to begin with is working *together* to achieve a common goal. You cannot achieve this if you are the sole possessor of most of the knowledge it takes to fulfill the functions of the business. It was always my preference to share all my knowledge, short of confidential HR information, with everyone on the team. The business will have far greater success this way.

    Why? Well, the head manager is one person. You simply cannot be everything and everywhere all at once. Things have a habit of coming along that interrupt your best laid plans, and if you are the only one who knows how to do everything, how can you possibly do your job to the best of your ability, much less get anything done? Sharing your knowledge allows you flexibility in your list of priorities so when urgent things come along, you can delegate those of lesser importance and know they will be done properly (without working 80 hour weeks).

    Taking the time to share your knowledge and groom your support staff shows them several things: belief in their abilities, appreciation of their presence, and trust in their work ethic. The more you share with them and mentor them in their professional growth, the more appreciated they will feel that you value their input and trust that they will perform well consistently. This is a motivator for them to continue to improve and seek out not just validation of what they do but also constructive criticism so they can keep moving forward. It boosts their confidence and even fosters initiative. When they get to the point where they not only see things that need attention but do them without being asked, then you know they are truly your team. And the business will be more of a success, because they now have ownership in it.

    I never felt any competition from any of my staff, so I can’t say I ever felt like I needed to keep any knowledge to myself. In fact, once one of the companies I worked for got rid of the merchandising and allocation directives and we were allowed to set up the product according to the needs of our customers, my support staff performed even better. They were given leeway to set up things for our market, and this allowed them to make leaps forward. The store wasn’t mine, it was ours. And I would be so excited to come in the next morning after a floor move, because I could not wait to see what they came up with on their own. And never once was I disappointed in anything they did.

    When they had trouble with working something out, I didn’t give them answers or shove them out of the way and take over. I explained certain things to them and let them come to their own conclusions and then had then explain why. When I had trouble figuring something out, I asked *them* for *their* input, and when it worked better than what I came up with, I used it.

    Some rules relating to sales audits and policies could not be bent, but anything that allowed them to handle issues based on a person by person basis was left open to them. They were given the rules and restrictions that could not be bent, but otherwise, I trusted them to handle each customer’s situation to their satisfaction. Sometimes it only meant being lenient with return and exchange policies, but even when the situation was difficult, I could trust them to handle it on their own, and I rarely over-rode their decisions. And when I did this, I explained why, so they could keep it in mind if it came up again.

    Our store had the lowest turn-over, and the employees felt like extended family. Some of them moved on to their own stores, and some left retail altogether. I was never resentful of the ones who moved on; I was excited for them. When you have a team that truly works together and shares what they know with each other, you play a large role in not only the professional development of each other, but personal improvements as well. Any why would anyone strive to be so unsure and uncomfortable with themselves as to want to snuff that out?

    • It takes courage to admit we don’t have all the answers, to acknowledge our weaknesses. Fear, coupled with improper pride, prevents a person from such honest communication and stifles the open interchange between people. That’s why this particular cause of failure is so insidious. We’re often taught that we’re protecting our own interests in fostering such fear, when the opposite is true. Thanks for sharing those anecdotes and observations from your time in retail, Amy! It shows the power of proper delegation and the overall good it produced. 🙂

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