From Fear to Wisdom in the Workplace


Scott Dickson

June 2016


The business world frequently confronts us with “out of our comfort zone” situations.  Challenges arise that no one expects. It’s like wandering in a wilderness without survival skills.  These wilderness experiences breed fears which diminish our ability to tap into the wisdom that guides us to safety and productivity.

Wisdom and fear are two concepts rarely discussed in a business context.  Regardless, let’s venture into this modestly explored territory.  In times of crisis, we need to put fear in its place as quickly as possible and turn to every source of available wisdom. Fear leads to defeat – corporately and personally.  Wisdom overcomes fearful circumstances with practical solutions that bring recovery and leads us back to success.


My first stint as a CEO came with a struggling airline called Vanguard.  Fifteen weeks into my tenure 9-11-01 struck.  I was in New York City on that day trying to raise capital for the airline when the horrendous events literally exploded.  I knew the airline industry well, our senior team had a good sense of how to rebuild the ailing operation, and had demonstrated some modest success in those early weeks after the management change. But no one had ever experienced a 9-11 event.  Revenue declined dramatically, security procedures made travel more difficult, and investment capital for an airline – forget it.  Nothing available.  The nation, in general, and the airline industry, in particular, faced fear in a way not experienced for decades. How do you run a business with a dramatic down turn in revenue for several months, enormous changes in operational procedures and regulations, and emotions running raw among stressed employees and passengers?

The next several months developed into a battle between fear and wisdom.  There weren’t many good answers other than to persevere, run the most reliable operation under the circumstances, and encourage the staff with constant communication.  Periodic doses of wisdom from the team, and from our supporters, were welcome.  It was a dark period that eventually turned around but not after taking a deep toll in this industry.  In retrospect, more wisdom and less fear would have been a better formula.


Fear in the business world manifests as a growing sense of being out of control of your circumstances.  It’s usually progressive, building to a crescendo, unless checked in some way.  Workplace fear blocks reason, denies the individual access to help, manifests in poor decision-making, poor customer service, diminished bottom-line results, and risky behavior that imperils a business.

Fear, and its close companion stress, are so closely linked that they feed off of, and “enable”, one another to have free reign in our lives. By that, I mean that fear breeds stress, and stress is sustained by fear. Fear keeps the stress levels higher than they need to be and detracts from the sound thinking and the strong corporate leadership it takes to get a company through hard times.

Fear can also be leveraged as a tool against others, in a corporately self-destructive manner.  Too many executives think that instilling frequent doses of fear into a business will bring desired results.  Management-by-fear may work for a time, but in the long run rarely produces top performance.

Let me illustrate.  Part of my career was spent as a departmental director for an industry association.  The head of the organization seemed to revel in using fear to achieve objectives.  Terminations were frequent and often unjustified.  Staff were publically berated before their peers if they failed to achieve targets.  Everyone’s presence in the office, including executives, was monitored through an archaic timekeeping system. No effort was made to curb rampant office politics that lead to lack of cooperation among divisions.  The results?  Fear ran rampant.  Turnover, voluntary and involuntary, was high.  Recruiting new staff was difficult, and the organization underperformed for its members. Many industry causes that a trade organization should have addressed weren’t tackled on a timely basis.

Obviously, we want to put fear in its place and move to embrace something better – a move towards wisdom.


What is wisdom in the workplace?  Wisdom isn’t simply intelligence or knowledge or even understanding.  Rather, it is the ability to use these qualities to think and act in such a way that common sense prevails and choices are beneficial and productive. Wisdom is not a collection of facts designed to help you win trivia games at the local pub. The terms “wisdom” and “wise” apply to people who represent a way of thinking and conduct that is orderly, socially sensitive, morally upright, and productive.

Wisdom in the workplace embodies various personal and corporate attributes.  Here are a few to consider.  Wise leaders:

  • Motivate by positive, personal example; work collaboratively; and do not resort to fear-mongering.
  • Conduct open, honest discussions with no hidden agendas, or retribution for raising difficult subjects.
  • Take a calm, reasoned approach to decision-making after considering various inputs.
  • Grasp the big picture and understand how the parts of the organization support the whole. They can easily articulate a succinct, sensible strategy that staff embraces.
  • Pursue transparent, ethical business practices, and follow legal and regulatory norms. Accountability and responsibility are highly regarded.
  • Listen before speaking and accept feedback, model change in their lifestyle, and operate with humility.
  • Vet and implement good ideas in a timely manner with credit given to the right people. Their ego needs are low.
  • Graciously accept failure, learn from mistakes, and work to correct what went wrong so that the same mistake is not repeated.
  • Don’t revel constantly in past glories but work to help others in the organization grow, succeed, and focus on the present and future.

Few companies model “wisdom” attributes constantly.  However, striving to achieve these goals produces positive results.

I was privileged to work for an airline where many of these attributes manifested on a regular basis.  The senior leadership team set the pace.  The team did not exhibit big egos but were committed to leading their departments in a reasoned way. Healthy discussions at the senior leadership team and board levels were encouraged.  Various points of view could be expressed and debated without retribution.  Communication with the entire employee group was robust and rigorous so that staff could articulate primary corporate objectives and have a sense of where they fit in the big picture.  Legal and regulatory requirements were followed; and where regulations became onerous concerted efforts were taken to work for change – not circumvent the law.  The airline turned in solid financials for much of its existence, not an easy feat in this industry, and won a disproportionately large number of awards for exemplary customer service.


Moving from fear to wisdom personally and corporately is our goal.  How do you do that? It starts by addressing fear.

  1. Admit fear, don’t hold it in – if you are wrestling with a nagging fear, admit it. Admitting that this is an issue is not easy but it’s the most important step in the process.
  2. Seek wise counsel from people who demonstrate wisdom, and be willing to be coached. Find those in your organization who have a track record of integrity, openness, and success making meaningful, positive and practical contributions. Your search may need to go beyond immediate confines. The person(s) could be in another department, at another company, or in another part of your life.  Be persistent in seeking out such people. And, then be willing to be coached and make changes.
  3. Do what you feared most. As you gain skills through mentoring, tackle assignments that caused fear.  Use your new skills to overcome that which inhibited you in the past.  Begin to reflect wisdom, seek better outcomes, and embrace positive change.