Boundaries of Fearlessness

by Jennifer Miller on March 27, 2010

in Leadership

Leaders: Fearless or Reckless?

Leaders: Fearless or Reckless?

In his book Linchpin Seth Godin draws a distinction between the words fearless and reckless. Fearless people, he says, are “unafraid of things one shouldn’t be afraid of.” They push through any imagined “threat” to make a presentation to a difficult customer or conduct a challenging conversation with an underperforming employee. On the other hand, reckless people “rush into places where only a fool would go. Reckless leads to huge problems, usually on the boss’s dime. Reckless is what led us to the mortgage and liquidity crisis.” [p. 64, Linchpin, 2010]

When it comes to leadership, it’s easy to look at these two words and think, “well, of course reckless leaders are a liability in our workplaces/schools/government. Why even bother with the distinction?” Reckless behaviors lead to bad organizational and financial outcomes. Clearly, it’s not a desirable leadership trait.  I wonder: have some leaders gotten the two words mixed up? Many leaders may strive for “fearlessness” (as defined by Godin) but in the process, have they crossed over to the “dark side” and into recklessness?

Let’s take corporate America, for example. In the workplace, some like their leaders much the same way they enjoy Starbuck’s Italian Roast blend: strong and bold. It’s the archetype of the hero-leader: a man on a horse, leading the charge. And, if you’re to believe Jason Seiden, he has a good head of hair too. (Listen to the HR Happy Hour’s Leadership Show for more on that interesting sidebar.)

For the moment, let’s set aside the debate on whether hero-leadership is what companies need. That’s an entirely different discussion. What if you work in a company where the culture values boldness, drive and charisma as desirable leadership traits? If you are in this situation, then Godin’s distinction becomes useful.  There’s a very thin line between fearless and reckless.  With today’s relentless pace and constant pressures, crossing that line becomes tempting.  Company cultures that promote leadership risk-taking without the counterbalancing forces of good judgment potentially set up the ultimate drawback: in the quest to doing something ground-breaking, leaders will take risks that are long on bravado and short on good sense.

So, how can a leader push those boundaries without being pulled into recklessness? It comes down to exercising sound judgment that’s aligned with one’s values.

 Faced with a decision that tempts recklessness? Ask yourself:


  • Will my actions stand the light of day— would I be proud to have them reported in the Wall Street Journal?
  • Who will be harmed by this action— physically, financially or emotionally?
  • Who else besides me benefits from this?
  • What part of this am I doing for the accolades. . .  or the adrenalin rush?
  • Am I willing to stand up in front of an audience (employees, shareholders, Congress) and take the hit for any consequences that may arise from my actions?
  • Does this action line up with the company values? Does it line up with my personal values?
  • Do I have the courage to speak up with there isn’t values alignment?

“Pushing boundaries” certainly fosters growth and innovation— up to a point. Smart leaders realize when they are approaching the out edge of positive ROI and courageously resist going beyond it.  This “push back” against unwise choices, driven by pressures of the day, is fearless in and of itself.

Are you fearless?

Photo credit: © Joggie Botma

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