Why are we afraid to lead?

Back in 2013 Dr. Brené Brown suggested that the central question presented to us in the 21st century is, “What are we supposed to be afraid of and who is to blame?

There is always some news headline pointing to the problems we face and giving us someone to blame. We have certainly seen this question come up about government, faith, social justice issues, health and economics in recent times. Rarely do we ever admit there is something that we can be responsible for. All this blaming gives us something really tempting to focus on. We fear and then we’re moved to aggression, to blame someone, or it turns inward and we become full of anxiety. In all of this we don’t have the language to describe what it is that is moving us.

On top of this I am sure many of us have have experienced bad leadership, perhaps causing us or others we know much pain. It’s no wonder we are distrustful of leaders and afraid to be leaders ourselves.

We are all afraid, this is the human condition. Our brains are supposed to be on watch for what might cause us harm and be moved to caution in those situations. This doesn’t mean we don’t get to a point where we are brave, but first it is fear that we must develop a relationship with.

The problem with fear

Fear is what impedes our ability both to lead well. Fear impedes us from assuming responsible for what we are given, this is a role. Leaders often either give away their responsibility or take responsibility for things that are outside of their responsibility. Coercive, manipulative or powerless leadership is the result. Anf often these leaders end up often pushing deeper into what does not work, repeating the same mistakes over and over. I think we have lots of leaders, but not very many mature leaders that have taken up a relationship with their own fears. If a leader is controlled by fear, they cannot serve and they end up just hurting others.

For an elder or parent responsibility is something we take, we must step into this with all the confidence in the world. This is a relationship and no one is there to give us this responsibility. I think until we become a parent it’s hard to even imagine what this means. When we bring the new born child home, they cry, they soil themselves, they need to be fed and held, and they have all these needs. No one tells you what you are responsible for, you simply see the needs and become their answer. You take the responsibility for meeting the needs in your newborn and then you figure out how as you go along. This happens in adult life too, perhaps you are the owner of a company, or a pastor of a church and you take responsibility for the needs of those in your care.

Our emotional fears impede us from either assuming or taking responsibility. Taking a relationship up with our own fears is the answer for us.

Equals vs Dependents

What also influences us are the two very different ways in which we relate in society and our understanding of human behavior. A leader is a leader among equals, but a parent or elder is a provider for a dependent, the parent is not equal to the child. We are okay thinking of a baby being dependent, but very quickly we consider anyone older as equals. They need to be independent and self-sufficient, able to fit into society. Here we begin to uncover a cognitive bias, that is a “fear of hierarchy”.

In our western world, we hold dear and close the idea that no person is better than another. We can trace these roots back to democracy which was greatly influenced by Protestant ideas. Jesus tells us time and time again in the Gospels: “the first will be last and the last will be first”. These ideas were also a reaction to Monarchists of old who believed that kings and queens had the right to rule over people because the kings and queens were chosen by God. This too we see in the Bible, such as Romans 13:2, “Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”

As a result of holding close to the ideas of equality, we have this cognitive bias against hierarchies. We push back against the idea that we are to “Obey your leaders and submit to them.” Indeed it is good to push back when we feel coercion, this pushing back makes way for relating as equals and to value every person. However because we have this bias for the end result, that of equality, there is wisdom in this hierarchical relating that we too easily miss.

Hierarchical Relating

To be in close relationship we must either be the dependent or the provider. We are moved by instinct to assume one of these. This is the context in which we ourselves can both learn skills and grow in maturity.

I think of our youngest who cannot read very well yet. He is dependent on us to make sense of the world. He often comes to us to ask us to read the instructions to him. I think of our oldest who is dependent on us to take care of her. She is growing so fast she can eat a whole pizza and turn around a few minutes later and ask for more food. For adults too, we come together in a working relationship only when we are in this hierarchical dance. It could be our teachers, doctors, our boss, our spouse, even the tradesman that comes to fix our house. There are many opportunities to be dependent on others, or to provide for another. These instincts need to match the ROLES or else problems arise.

I remember when I needed some medical attention a little while ago, I was dependent on the doctors and nurses to know what was wrong and what to do. I made myself easy to look after, I did what they told me to do. When some of the nurses were tired, I took the lead expressing how much I appreciated all their work and I noticed they were more encouraged. So the relationship dance went both ways, making the situation much more pleasant. I was fixed up in one night and sent home in no time. I can only imagine the problems that might have arised if I began telling the nurses and doctors how to do their job! The instincts to depend and provide matched our roles.

Relating problems also arise because WE PUSH for the end result of maturity and independence. We forget the context in which growing up happens. Independence is NOT when those that we care for are able to look after themselves, or organise their day because they have to. Independence IS when they know they have our help if they want it, and THEY CHOOSE to do it themselves.

This does not mean we should rush in to fix everything or interrupt them wanting to do things for themselves. But instead we must be inviting those we care for to depend on us before we hope to see THEM MOVED to being independent from us. Jesus did this when He invited His disciples to be with Him, to follow Him before they were moved to go out and disciple others.

We have now identified two things that impedes us from either assuming or taking responsibility : Emotional Fear AND Cognitive Bias.

The Dynamics of Hierarchical Relating

Our relating hierarchically will be a new concept for many of us, so I will spend a little more time here explaining what it looks like so as you can see it all around you.

The dynamics of a hierarchical relationships are summarized in this diagram. The person seeking connection is cued by their own felt need, and those that perceive this need and respond move into the position of providing.

When things don’t work, especially where there are roles such as parent and child, teacher and student, the dependent experiences shame and the provider experiences guilt. If we have some awareness of our emotions, both these emotions indicate to us us that this dance is not working, and will activate the instincts to draw us back together again.

We as parents need to invoke the instinct in ourselves to provide for these in our care. We cannot be taught this instinct, it’s a dance we find. We discover it and grow into it. I think of public speaking in a similar way. I can teach you all the technical aspects of public speaking, but until you step up and start to speak in front of others, you will not learn how to do it.

If we are a boss or a pastor of a church it is the same, we must step into it, perceive those that we lead as in need of us and present ourselves as the answer. We must invite those we employ, teach or disciple to “come, follow me!”

The Provider Role is action

This hierarchical relating is all around us even when we are adamant that “everyone is equal”. As a case study, I want to share about one Christian movement which runs a youth discipleship school that I myself have attended. It’s a five month school where students from all over the world come for three months of teaching and two months of community volunteer work, often in a different country from one’s home country. Each school is unique, but here I will generalize what I see is the model for this school.

1. Firstly, the school is designed as a scenario where the youth must depend upon the leaders. We see this also in many youth camps or wilderness experience type situations.

  • The school is a live-in community away from family & friends, often in a different country. I can’t imagine a more ideal way to invite dependence than placing people in a strange new place with people they have never met, and providing all accommodation and meals.

2. The leaders then put on the roles of compass point, provider and nurturer.

  • We are given routine and direction with a full schedule, given a leader as a one-on-one support, given directions as to how everything works, given rules for our safety, given instruction on all things so as we can learn.

3. We were invited to lean in on the leaders. We had come to the right place to have all our questions answered. As we faced our own fears and insecurities, we could depend upon the leaders and they took care of us.

4. The leaders hid their own needs and fears. We weren’t figuring out life together as we might with a friend or a spouse. The leaders had their own support structure. We were not equals, at least not while we were students.

5. The leaders make things work for us. When challenges come up, they invite us to work together, to find a way forward, to come up with new ideas of how to make things work for all.

I hope as you look around you’ll start to see all the ways we enter this dance of dependence and provider.

When we’re not aware of this dynamic problems begin to arise. A little resistance quickly flairs into conflict, we don’t know how to make things work, and we’re lost as to how to move forward. We must first see what is happening, and then it occurs to us that it’s our responsibility to maintain the relationship, not those that are dependent.


We have identified Emotional Fear AND our Bias against Hierarchical Relating as two factors that impede us from assuming or taking responsibility.

As a parent, elder or teacher we can perceive the child or student as in need of us, and then present ourselves as the answer. Of course we don’t smother with too much personalized attention, this would overload any of us. Instead we take the responsibility for the relationship, giving an unconditional invitation to exist in our presence, and give them space to do it themselves when they choose to.

We do this especially when the child or dependent lets us down, when they don’t follow through with their good intentions, this is when our unconditional invitation to exist in our presence matters the most, this is that place of growth for both of us.

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