In the latest installment of our IvyExec series, Larraine Segil, CEO of Little Farm Company, shares her thoughts on being a fearless leader.

Being CEO of an Advanced Materials Distribution Company, a Healthcare company and a Professional services firm taught me much about leadership – what works, and what doesn’t.

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I learned that a leader can only change an organization if there is a natural (or adapted) fit between what makes that leader effective and what the organization respects. Being fearless is a key characteristic.

I remember telling my senior leadership team as we were en route at 30,000 feet on our way to create a strategic alliance with GE Materials Division, that I was afraid. As I voiced these works, I suddenly realized that the worst thing that could happen is that they would say ‘No!’ If they did, I would go onto the next option. I relaxed and when I entered the conference room to face 20 members of their team, I was energized and excited. We made the alliance. My sense of confidence set us up for success. My fear would have set the stage for failure.

Over 24 years of presenting Executive Education to thousands of senior executives around the world, my research unearthed 10 traits of successful leaders, as detailed in my book “Dynamic Leader, Adaptive Organization” (John Wiley and Sons, 2002 by Larraine Segil). But leaders cannot lead organizations that are unwilling to be led. Which is why these 10 traits of outstanding leaders must be mirrored with compatible traits in the organizations that they lead. The good news is that if there is not a fit, there are management tools that can help both leaders and organizations move towards necessary change, together.

Fearlessness is an important leadership trait if the organization matches it by being a culture that permits failure. In this case, the management tools needed to facilitate a strategic fit between a fearless leader and her/his organization are shared learning and shared power.

  • Fearlessness:

Getting a “no” is not a good reason to be fearful.

Mature leaders consider intended and unintended consequences, but not to the point of being paralyzed. Being fearless means taking some risks – not foolish ones, but ones which stretch you, and bend your mind under different challenges. Often doing what you fear the most makes your fear disappear, and you look back and marvel that you feared it at all. People want to be led by those who have courage, but being fearless without the other traits such as commitment, intelligence and integrity is like being a Lion without a heart.

  • Permits Failure:

The organization that punishes failure will be the one filled with those who operate with fear and constraint. One that permits failure is one that will be filled with innovation and inspiration. A leader who exhibits fearlessness (along with the commitment, intelligence and integrity) will be one who will inspire those who work for her to take some risks, think out of the box and to create new ideas and approaches. 

  • Shared Learning and Shared Power:

These are the management processes that enable the two above characteristics to work together. Failing in a vacuum is bad failing. Failing in a structure that immediately takes the key learnings from the failure and shares it within the organization is “good” failing because it allows everyone to learn from mistakes while encouraging risk taking.

Here is an example of an organization that was led by a leader who was fearless, enabling a culture that permitted failure – and showing how this failure can lead to great innovation and organizational (as well as individual) success:

As a member and board member of The Committee of 200 (C200), an invitation-only group of the world’s top female entrepreneurs and C-Suite executives who work to foster, celebrate and advance women’s leadership in business, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the most amazing women many of whom have become my friends. One of them is my fellow C200 member Maggie Wilderotter.

When we met, Maggie was the most senior woman working for Microsoft, running their Government Sector. From there, she left there to take the role of CEO of Citizens Communications, a $700 million telecom company now known as Frontier Communications (NASDAQ: FTR). For the past 11 years I have served on the board of that company and worked with Maggie – a truly fearless leader who would not take ‘ NO’ for an answer if she believed that what she was doing was the right thing. Because of this, under her leadership the company made multiple acquisitions and is now the Nation’s largest Rural Telecommunications Provider, doubling in size after acquiring Verizon’s assets in California, Texas and Florida.

Maggie’s approach was to enable fearlessness among those in her senior leadership team, as well as those in the general manager community across the organization. The idea was to push management control to those at the customer level so that they could make good decisions to help customers on the spot by sharing the learning and the power. To support this model that she believed in so much, Maggie was everywhere over the ten years she was CEO, meeting with the employees across the nation, available by email, phone and in person, and always driving her message through the ranks. In addition, she was fearless in looking ahead for herself and for the organization, orchestrating a smooth transition of new leadership as she moved to Executive Chair and now off the board and out of the company – which in itself is the mark of a good leader – succession planning and hand off.

The moral of the story? Fear is a constrainer of innovation. Mature leaders fear the right things – and someone saying “no” is not one of them.