How to Avoid Two Dangerous Traps in Leadership – Listen and Engage

Doubt and Fear

We often read or hear in the media about leaders whose lack of courage reaped painful consequences. But these “spectacular” failures are just the tip of the iceberg.

Doubts and fears of a much smaller magnitude have caused legions of leaders to fail in less obvious ways.

Although these failures don’t make the newspapers, they nevertheless can suck the energy and life out of the people and organizations they affect. By learning to listen and engage in a healthy way, I believe that many of these less-obvious failures could be avoided.

Learn to Listen

Many leaders fail to listen to the ideas, opinions, and constructive feedback of others. Some go so far as to use intimidation to silence “threatening” ideas. Still others suppress ideas by dominating conversations and not allowing others to speak.

These leaders may appear “macho” on the outside, but in reality their fears and insecurities send a loud message that they don’t want anyone to disagree with their view of the world. Unfortunately, most of us know how exhausting and demoralizing it can be to work for a leader whose tender ego must be carefully guarded.

Usually there is a graveyard outside this executive’s office that’s filled with the bodies of messengers who had the courage to provide honest feedback.

Getting Honest Feedback

If you suspect that you are this type of person, let me encourage you to get a “leadership 360 assessment,” so your direct reports, peers, and manager (or board of directors) can give you candid, anonymous feedback. (Now, that will take some real courage on everyone’s part, won’t it!) If the results indicate a problem, don’t rationalize your behaviors or demonize the messengers.

Engage the issues and grow into the leader you can be, the one that your followers deserve.

When the truth is courageously communicated, people and organizations flourish. But when doubts and fears hold sway, leaders avoid hard decisions and responsible actions, and instead look for a comfortable way out. At best, team energy drains away and people don’t grow. Too often, fear and doubt cause bad judgment that derails the leader’s influence.

The Leadership Engagement Model

Leaders who lack courage to engage problems usually veer off course in one of two directions: they will either seek to dominate, or they will seek to withdraw (fight or flight; violence or silence.) Both of these counterproductive behaviors have the same root cause: fears and doubts.

I have found the Leadership Engagement Model™ depicted below to be extremely helpful for improving the cooperation and productivity of teams working cross-functionally, especially if a “silo mentality” is prevalent. It has also been beneficial for strategic partners who have competing interests.

Leadership Engagement Model - Lee Ellis

For example, in most medical communities a natural tension exists between the hospital and the physicians and clinics that use the hospital. Typically, one party tries to dominate to get its way, which in turn causes the other party to become distrustful and combative.

Ending the Vicious Cycle

Eventually, emotions can get so raw that one party withdraws, or they both do. To halt this vicious cycle, the two sides need to courageously commit to engage in productive dialog, identify common goals, and implement agreed-upon solutions. Meaningful engagement occurs when each party fights for its ideas in a healthy, constructive way, while still being open to the ideas of others.

This type of dialog is evidence of humility, courage, and confidence. Doubts and fears are normal. You can’t avoid them, but you can manage them. You can choose to override your feelings and do the right thing. You can choose to lean into the pain for the good of others and yourself.

Like the men in the POW camps you’ve read about, you can choose to be a strong leader by being courageous.

In what specific situations might you be dominating or withdrawing (e.g., by attacking or procrastinating) when you should be engaging? What choices do you need to make to engage issues you have been avoiding? Please share your wisdom and experiences in this forum.

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Lee Ellis

Lee Ellis is Founder & President of Leadership Freedom LLC & FreedomStar Media.
He is a leadership consultant and expert in teambuilding, executive development & assessments
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His latest book is called Leading with Honor: Leadership Lessons from the Hanoi Hilton.

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L2L Contributing Author


  1. Doug Flor on August 1, 2013 at 7:58 am

    One thing I have used with clients who have been the “bully” and are seeking to change is to have them go to one person before a staff meeting and tell them that they are going to bring up a specific topic. When the topic is broached, the team member is to take a respectfully disagreeable position with the leader.

    Staging a respectful disagreement lets others know that this is a new direction for the team and that the leader is demonstrating a new way of encouraging open, honest dialogue.

    • Lee Ellis on August 2, 2013 at 1:13 pm

      Doug – that is a great suggestion, as it does set the stage for open dialogue and trust within a previously untrustworthy group. Thanks for sharing this helpful tip. (Lee Admin)

  2. Larry Walker on August 1, 2013 at 6:14 pm

    Lee’s article is good and raises related thoughts.

    People who dominate conversations.
    Some time ago, a consultant clarified for me that while some people dominate simply because they intend to be bullies, there are others who dominate in an entirely different manner. He labeled this second form, intellectual domination. People who dominate in this manner, are simply quicker than their peers and are eager to share what they know. While ‘what they know’ is very valuable, the manner in which they deliver it minimizes participation by others. The solution to this form of domination is to take the individuals aside and make them aware of their behavior and the related negative impacts of it. Then simply asking them to explicitly give others an opportunity to talk.

    Leadership 360 Assessments
    If leaders have never taken one of these — they should! As indicated by Lee, these tools enable leaders to receive good inputs as to how others perceive them. Invariably, some of these insights are totally unexpected — causing the leader to pause and reflect on what is really going on.

    Leadership Engagement Model
    Excellent. I fully agree that fear leads to ‘fight or flight’ responses. Fear is a powerful emotion that affects us all. The model presented is simple, clear, and useful. Good job!

    • Lee Ellis on August 2, 2013 at 1:17 pm

      Great comments, Larry. On your dominate comments, it immediately reminds me of the parallel importance of being emotional intelligent–being to “read” a room and the individuals in it, knowing when to speak, how to speak, etc. A leader with these skills is gold in an organization, since attitude is, many times, a more valuable skill that aptitude. (Lee Admin)