Organisational doubt & fear

Human Resources consultant ANDREW SONNENBERG digs deep into the pitfalls facing corporations that lack transformational leaders.


There are differing views on the core purpose of an organization, ranging from the narrow purpose of generating wealth for shareholders (Friedman, 1970) to the broader ‘stakeholder perspective’ (Even & Freeman, 1988) emphasizing wider engagement and a positive contribution to society. Irrespective of which perspective one favours, in this age of exponential technological advancement and digital disruption, the struggle for competitive advantage is real. Moreover, the pressure on CEOs, executive and leadership teams to perform and deliver often unrealistic growth targets is relentless.

The expectation on these teams which is cascaded down through the organizational hierarchy, is: “…Deliver extraordinary results often with very ordinary, limited or sometimes no resources at all”. This is a hallmark of an excellent service organization (Frei & Morriss, 2012). A common consequence of this typical scenario, however, is organizational doubt and leadership fear.

Although seldom explicit, the hierarchically advantaged fear that they will be unable to deliver to ever increasing targets. Sensing this fear, the wider organization (comprised of many followers) in turn, doubt the individual and/or collective leadership ability and capacity to lead the organization to sustainable success. Fear and doubt are the enemy of creativity and innovation. Creative expression and innovation are essential ingredients of organizational transformation and sustainability (Ungerer, Ungerer & Herholdt, 2016).

I agree with Frei & Morriss’ (2012, p. 8) definition of leadership being about “…making other people better as a result of your presence and making sure that the impact lasts in your absence”. However, the ability to make other people better is based on feeling good oneself. When I am not feeling safe, grounded, valued and confident, I find it more difficult to make others feel that way.

The ability to make other people better is based on feeling good oneself. When I am not feeling safe, grounded, valued and confident, I find it more difficult to make others feel that way.

The role of leadership in sustained organizational success cannot be overemphasized. Although I whole-heartedly endorse the view that we are all leaders in our own unique ways, it is the formal, legitimate leaders who (through a wider engagement process) create the vision, mission, organizational culture and values. These strategic philosophies are what make the organization tick (Ungerer, Ungerer & Herholdt, 2016).

In his seminal work on human motivation entitled “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Austrian psychiatrist Victor Frakel (1946) documented the fundamental importance of meaning in a survival context. In more recent times, this universal concept has been expanded by Simon Sinek (2009) in his book “Start With the Why”. In an organization, as in life, having a purpose (a meaningful role) and understanding how this contributes to the overall success of the organization is key, whether a leader or a follower.

Essentially, everyone needs to feel safe, secure, needed, valued, meeting survival, security and belonging needs on Abraham Maslow’s (1943) (In Manning & Curtis, 2015) hierarchy of needs framework. These basic needs may sound straight forward but not every leader is able to meet them. When one layers on levels IV and V needs of respect and fulfilment, truly effective leadership becomes more challenging. Feeling respected, supported, inspired and empowered in addition to the afore-mentioned basic human needs is the catalyst for unleashing human potential.

This is the gift that transformational leaders bring. They articulate and instil belief in a vision, rally support and unleash passion, commitment and sacrifice from others in the achievement thereof, making them feel safe and valued in the process. They care deeply and believe in their vision and the work required to achieve it, not allowing obstacles to impede this. They build critical mass, and collectively achieve what was once considered unachievable.

General George J. Flynn (In Sinek, 2014, p. xii) said that “…professional competence is not enough to be a good leader; good leaders must truly care about those entrusted to their care”. Through consistently living these behaviours, leaders remove organizational doubt and fear.

When people feel safe, secure, needed, respected and valued they are engaged. Engaged employees expend discretionary effort toward achieving organizational goals – the magic, that drives organizations forward. Leaders, in turn, need to recognize and reward these efforts to complete the virtuous circle.


  • Andrew Sonnenberg is an HR consultant, an associate at Yellowtreehub and former Head of HR: Retail Operations at Woolworths in South Africa.


Friedman, M. 1970.  The social responsibility of business is to increase its profits. New York Times Magazine, September 13, 32-33, 122-126.
Evan, W.M., Freeman, R.E. 1988.  A stakeholder theory of the modern corporation: Kantian capitalism. In T. Beauchamp & N. Bowie (Eds.), Ethical theory and business. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall. 75-93.
Frei, F., & Morriss, A. 2012. Uncommon Service. Boston: Harvard Review Press.
Ungerer, M., Ungerer, G. & Herholdt, J. 2016. Crystallising the Strategic Business Landscape. Randburg: KR Publishing.
Frankel, V. 1946. Man’s Search for Meaning. Vienna: Beacon Press.
Manning, G., & Curtis, K. 2014.  The Art of Leadership. New York: McGraw Hill.
Sinek, S. 2009. Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. New York: Penguin Group.
Sinek, S. 2014. Leaders Eat Last. London: Penguin Group.