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Nothing to Fear? Let's Find Something!

“If the instructions are not clear, if the orders are not obeyed, it is the fault of the general. But if the instructions are clear and the soldiers still do not obey, it is the fault of their officers.” – Sun Tzu

"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." - President Franklin Delano Roosevelt

"Whenever there is fear, you will get wrong figures." - W. Edwards Deming

"We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones." - Stephen King

Sun_tzu_concubine I've come to the conclusion that fear is underrated. I'm not talking horror (a la Stephen King), nor unbridled neuroses (as a project manager, I have that one mastered, thank you very much). I'm talking good old run-of-the-mill, healthy-for-you FEAR.

I was reading the story of Sun Tzu and the King's concubines.  For those not familiar with it, Sun Tzu was a kind of consulting legend. Instead of Six Sigma, he specialized in military strategy... a sort of Machiavelli for the B.C. era. King Ho Lu was considering hiring Sun Tzu, so he asked for a demonstration (evidently, round table interviews hadn't been invented yet). Sun Tzu organized the king's 300 concubines into two battalions (allow the king's two favorites to be the heads), armed them, and gave them a clear, direct order. Giggling. He tried again. More giggling.

Here's where things get interesting. He called in the executioner and beheaded the two favorite concubines. Sun Tzu himself might have been on the chopping block had it not been for what he did next. He quickly promoted two more concubines and gave them orders. Amazingly, compliance.

A while back, I was on a contract with a client. There were some project managers who weren't cutting it, and the client manager did what needed to be done: promptly fired the project managers (be they contract or employee... didn't matter). However, there were business analysts who were also misbehaving who were allowed to continue the behavior. Why? There was no fear of reprisal. Nobody wanted to behead a concubine. Those in the project office got the message loud and clear: do your job and nobody gets hurt. In the business analyst office, that message rarely got around.

I've been curious why we don't behead more concubines. Mind you, I'm not talking about the toxic bosses who go around doing nothing BUT verbal decapitations all day. My focus here is on otherwise effective leaders who let bad behavior abound. I think the problem here is how we perceive fear. Roosevelt was right: we have nothing to fear but fear itself. The question remains, though: isn't it just a little OK to maintain a healthy respect for being afraid? Have we become so desensitized to fear that we just don't know how to feel it any more?

If you are in a role of leading people out there among my readers, what is preventing you from beheading a concubine? Is it a desire to be liked? Is it a need for honesty (as in the Deming quote, above)? I think even Deming would have agreed that well-directed fear is a good thing. Fear of the competition. Fear of complacency. Fear of irreversible failure. Fear of irrelevance. Fear of under-performing co-workers. Fear of non-value. Those are all good fears to have. They are good fears to address head on.

So, the next time you deal with a giggling lack of response in the face of clear directives, are you prepared to behead a concubine? It might make all the difference in seizing your accomplishment.


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Mike Wagner

The Bible teaches two kinds of fear/respects.

You're onto something with this post!

Bob Donaldson

As I mentioned in a recent presentation along the same lines, Franklin Roosevelt never had to manage a software deployment project.

I think there is certainly a role for good healthy fear, but the problem that (I think) Deming was getting at was that fear can be such a strong motivator that it results in far too many unintended consequences. Sun Tzu certainly got everyone's attention with his executions, but as managers we need to make sure that we do not just encourage everyone to hide from us ... whether that means hiding the truth or avoiding visibility. We need to encourage people to take risks as well as responsibility and provide an atmosphere that has some degree of 'freedom to fail'. Results matter, but execution should not be based solely on outcomes, but rather on an inability or unwillingness to rise to the challenges of the position. That way the best people are rewarded for taking on the hardest problems.

Timothy Johnson

Great points, Bob (esp. about FDR's quote).

We collectively need to learn the difference between "good" fear and "bad" fear. Good fear will motivate positive behaviors; bad fear paralyzes or brings about negative behaviors. When I was at the client, I didn't have fear watching others get beheaded because I knew I was not a "giggling concubine"; however, I would have loved to have seen more beheadings on the IT side of the house where they were not happening. They had no fear of reprisal.

Great contribution!



There is a GREAT History-channel documentary, that can actually be found in (I believe) 7 segments on YouTube, that explore Sun-Tzu, the Art of War, and applications of his principles throughout history. Interestingly enough, the series begins with the story of the concubines....

Have you seen it by any chance? I highly recommend it.

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