How Courageous Leaders Create Cultures of Continuous Improvement


The success of your organization is dependent on the courage of your leaders. Until you confront your collective fears, you will never get down to the true root cause of many of your problems, and they will persist in preventing you from succeeding. Read on to discover how to confront five common fears that may be holding you back from continuous improvement.

Organizational culture is sometimes referred to as “the dragon in the cellar.” That’s the dragon who eats our strategic change initiatives, not only for breakfast, but for lunch and dinner too. But why the cellar? Many organizations prefer to keep the dragon—like most things we don’t want to completely acknowledge about ourselves—locked away in a place where it can’t be seen. Paradoxically, that’s why the dragon carries on wreaking havoc. Only when you have the courage to face the dragon will you be able to tame it and use its great power to your advantage.

One aspect of our organizational culture—or our organizational self-image, if you like—we rarely talk about is what we collectively fear. If we don’t acknowledge our fears, they will unconsciously influence our decisions and actions. The following five fears are particularly important to be aware of if you want to succeed with continuous improvement:

  1. Fear of power loss
  2. Fear of regret
  3. Fear of losing face
  4. Fear of falling behind
  5. Fear of losing friends

When these fears are prevalent, openness and creativity are replaced by watching your back and striving to look good, and when that’s the name of the game, you will never truly succeed with continuous improvement. What’s worse, if you don’t confront these fears, you will forever deprive yourself of true power, satisfaction, recognition, peace of mind, and rewarding relationships.

Fear of Power Loss
Do you have the courage to distribute decision-making power and ability in your organization, or are you afraid your colleagues will prove to be at least as capable as you are?

Driven by the fear of losing power, managers will hold on to it by centralizing decision-making and hoarding information. When this is the case, the majority will never be given an honest chance to contribute to continuous improvement.

Launching sporadic idea campaigns serves as a good alibi for a manager afraid of losing power. An idea campaign creates the illusion of power distribution, but the old assumption of employees asking and managers deciding is still in play, and as long as it is, the manager will remain the bottleneck of the improvement process.

The courageous know that true power is gained by sharing knowledge, not hoarding it. Only the courageous can access the true power of their organization, because only when you let go of your fear of losing power will you be able to launch a systematic and structured way of working where everyone is truly empowered to engage in continuous learning and improvement.

Fear of Regret
Do you have the courage to let go of your point of view, or are you afraid that taking another perspective will make your previous choices appear less than optimal?

From time to time I hear people asking, “Why didn’t we do this earlier?” To me, the question has a simple answer: “Because you didn’t know then what you know now.” The fact that you decided to change your approach is a sign of learning that should be celebrated, not a reason for regret, as the question implies.

Having a firm belief is often a good thing, but when people hold on to their worldviews and to the methods that have taken them this far too tightly, their perspective becomes narrow-minded and their actions rigid. The fear driving this behavior is the fear of regret—the fear of finding out that you could have done better—and if your fear of regret becomes overwhelming, you will defend the perspective that makes your previous choices seem rational. Unfortunately, by defending your history, you also prevent yourself from creating a better future.

The courageous accept what is and let go of what was to create the future they desire. Only the courageous can change their perspective without fear of regret because they know that they have done and will do the best of what they know in every situation. When you let go of your fear of regret, you will go from defending your own viewpoint to sharing each other’s perspectives, and only then will you learn from each other and give yourselves optimal conditions for creating the future you desire.

Fear of Losing Face
Do you have the courage to stop window-dressing and point out the purposeless activities you see, or are you afraid of being put in the “naughty corner”?

In the short tale The Emperor’s New Clothes, two weavers promise an emperor a new suit of clothes that is invisible to those stupid, incompetent, or unfit for their positions. When the emperor parades before his subjects in his new “clothes,” it takes the untainted mind of a child to point out the obvious fact that the emperor is naked.

When you see the kind of behavior the tale illustrates in an organization, you know fear of losing face is in the air. You will hear a lot of talk about following routines and preparing for audits, but not as much about shared purposes and customer needs. This is a sign that the original intention of things has been lost and you have started doing them for their own sake.

The courageous know that the truth may hurt for a while but a lie hurts forever. Only the courageous dares to ask questions such as “Why are we measuring this?” “What is the purpose of this meeting?” “How does this improve our performance?” and “Why do we have this routine?” When you’re not afraid to lose face, you can stop any unnecessary window-dressing activities. The time you save can be used for identifying real improvements that will make your organization stronger and customers more satisfied. Improved reputation will follow as a byproduct.

Fear of Falling Behind
Do you have the courage to take time to reflect and try to find a smarter way, or are you afraid that will make you fall behind?

Recently a friend only half-jokingly told me that the best way to get some time to think at his workplace was to take a quick walk through their big office space. If he did, people would assume he was in a hurry to an important meeting and would not throw a pointless assignment at him.

If the fear of losing speed and falling behind is widespread in an organization, the main focus will become to do as much as possible, as fast as possible. What you do is secondary. In this environment, a pile of papers on your desk and a lot of unanswered emails are almost considered status symbols. They show that you have a lot to do and that people should leave you alone.

If you and your colleagues spend a lot of time storing, sorting, structuring, moving, and searching, you might suspect that the fear of losing speed is widespread in your organization. If you feel uneasy and get a bad conscience when you get some time free for reflection, you can be sure. The urge to keep busy makes people overproduce. But the overproduction must be handled by someone—most often, the next person in the process.

The courageous know that even if they win the rat race, they are still just rats. Only the courageous will be able to see that running will do you no good if you are heading in the wrong direction. When you let go of your fear of falling behind, you will be able to stop focusing on short-term productivity and spend some time on the strategic initiatives you never had the time to address because of all the firefighting. That’s when your improvement work can become the growth strategy it is supposed to be.

Fear of Losing Friends
Do you have the courage to hold your colleagues accountable, or are you afraid to ruin your artificially cheerful relationship?

In organizations where fear of losing friends is in the air, people are afraid of expecting too much of each other. Instead, they tiptoe around one another to avoid ruining the friendly but artificially blithesome atmosphere. Ventilating different opinions is too close to conflict, and therefore rare in this environment. Excessive talk about “our friendly atmosphere,” on the other hand, is very common, because that reminds people to not disturb the social peace.

Until you confront this fear, your improvement initiatives will decline without anybody taking responsibility or being held accountable.

The courageous address people’s desire to utilize their full potential. Only the courageous realize that true friendship is about expecting the very best of one another rather than allowing each other to be lesser versions of themselves. When you let go of your fear of losing friends, you can start helping your colleagues utilize their full potential and their strengths. The effect will be improved results, people who grow, and superficial friendships turning into deep and mutual trust.

Setting the Dragon Free

If you don’t have the courage to walk down the cellar stairs to confront the dragon, you will never get down to the true root cause of many of your problems, and they will stay with you and forever prevent you from succeeding.

Remember that your fears, like vampires, will lose their power when they are exposed to light. The courage to talk openly about them will be rewarded with satisfaction, recognition, peace of mind, rewarding relationships, and a foundation for truly succeeding with continuous improvement.

About the author

CMCrossroads is a TechWell community.

Through conferences, training, consulting, and online resources, TechWell helps you develop and deliver great software every day.