Why Fear-Based Leadership is a Poor Strategy

HRH Prince Philip
The Author on parade

Leaders Who Instil Fear Are Likely to Cause Mistakes

Like many, I was shocked and saddened to read that HRH Prince Philip had died. I had the pleasure of meeting him just once. It was just one of his estimated 22,219 solo engagements, so I am just one of the many thousands of people that the Duke of Edinburgh met in his many years of public service. 

I was immediately reminded of our encounter. It was amazing to meet the Prince but unfortunately the experience was marred by the fear that I felt at the time. Fear of failure, that ironically, led to failure.

A Royal encounter

My fleeting encounter with the Duke of Edinburgh was at the passing-out parade at Welbeck College. I was a student there and must have been 17 or 18 years old at the time.

Welbeck College was a military school and we had pretty regular parades, but a royal guest was a big deal. What’s more, Prince Philip was a respected military man in his own right, having had a distinguished career in the Navy, including combat experience in the Second World War. Therefore, we had been preparing extra hard and received a considerable number of extra instructions on our conduct and behaviour. Inspections also became all the more stringent.

I still remember the RSM (Regimental Sergeant Major) giving a stern brief about what we were and were not allowed to do when the Prince was there. He finished off by saying, “And whatever you do, don’t contradict him!” or words to that effect.

The RSM was a fearful Scottish character. He was short in stature, but his voice made up for it. I can still recollect his voice commanding, “there will be no smoking on the college rooves!” He gave many other motivational speeches, generally after whichever latest student misdemeanour. Woe to the one who might fall under his wrath!

Choking under pressure

So, as the Prince inspected the parade, passing down the line, with the RSM in-tow, I could not help but playing over in my mind all the RSM’s colourful threats. Then, to my shock, the Prince stopped in front of me and asked a question.

“So, you are off on exercise next week?”

The Prince was referring to our annual military training camp that happened in the holidays. Prince Philip smiled; he was obviously doing his best to put me at ease. But, as far as I was concerned, the pressure was on. I had to reply.

So, without thinking I said: “No, actually it’s the week after next.”

At that moment I realised what I had done. I had contradicted the Duke. I could see the RSM out of the corner of my eye. He was attempting to smile, but there was no laughter in his eyes. His face wore a grimace that said, “Ash, I am going to hunt you down and kill you.”

I was so scared I can’t remember what the Prince said in reply. Ever the consummate professional, I don’t think he was phased at all by the idiocy of this young man.

The Prince continued his way down the line of cadets. His smile was unbroken, his manner as relaxed as ever. I, however, sweated it out until the parade was over. Then, I spent the rest of the school term avoiding the RSM.

Fear is a poor motivator

Isn’t it funny that so many of our mistakes are born out of fear and worry? Thinking about the RSM still sends a shiver down my back. It just goes to show: fear is not a good motivator. 

Prince Philip was deeply committed to public service and had high expectations of himself and others. Despite this, and his position, he always tried to put people at ease. This was in contrast to the fear that the RSM inspired.

Reflecting on these contrasting approaches has certainly changed the way I work with people. As the Google study confirmed, leaders should be creating an environment of psychological safety where people can make mistakes. The funny thing is, if people aren’t afraid, they make fewer mistakes anyway. Ironic.

We all have something to learn from the Duke of Edinburgh. No matter what our position, we should always maintain our humour and humility. And as leaders, we should seek to put people at ease to get the best out of them.

HRH Prince Philip you will be missed. I can just echo the words of President Obama:

“As the world mourns his loss, we send our warmest wishes and deepest sympathies to the Queen, their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren; and everyone who knew and loved this remarkable man.”

Barak Obama

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