Fear Kills Creativity: Leadership Lessons from Cavemen

Fear Kills Creativity: Leadership Lessons from Cavemen

The caveman and his family were settling in by the fire for the evening. Father and son had enjoyed a successful day of hunting, and Mom had brought a big stack of wood in from the rain.

So the family was fed and warm as Dad talked to his son about the prototype spears they’d been working on together. They’d found a new type of wood, which would allow for a lighter shaft and sharper arrow point. Samples of their invention leaned against the cave wall, awaiting further experimentation.

Suddenly, Mom let out a scream, her panicked eyes glued to the cave entrance. Dad followed her gaze to see one of his deepest fears: a saber-toothed tiger staring them down with fangs bared.

A surge of adrenaline rushed thru Dad’s body as he dove for his weapon.

“Dad, it’s a chance to try out our new spears!” the son called. But the father ignored him, grabbed his trusty old-fashioned weapon, and rammed it into the invader, killing the cat and saving his family.

“Aw, Dad, we missed a perfect opportunity to test the new weapon!” his son complained.

“No, son,” Dad breathlessly explained. “This was not the moment to risk a new idea. I needed to stay with the old, trusted spear to ensure our safety.”

The Biology of Fear

We are biologically designed to react to fear-inducing situations like a caveman – with a fight-or-flight response. Adrenaline surges, muscles tense, pupils dilate, blood flow increases, sweat glands kick it into high gear. The whole body prepares to struggle or escape.

This is not the time to think. It’s the time to survive. So our body turns on the physical juice and shuts creativity down.

Did you hear that, Leader? Fear kills creativity.

The Caveman Leader

So what happens when a leader injects fear into an organization? When he or she leads through ultimatums, threats, and worst-case scenarios?

Innovation shuts down. Experimentation is vaporized. Everyone heads for the foxhole and puts their heads down.

The goal has become survival rather than progress.


Then, our misguided leader starts complaining: “We need new ideas desperately, but all I’m getting is the same old stuff.”

So he or she gets in front of the team and starts generating more fear: “If we don’t cut costs this quarter, we’re really gonna be in trouble.”

Often, such leaders fuel the fire of concern by appearing scared themselves (because they are). They’re nervous, jumpy, wide-eyed, and generally over reactive. They lecture more than they listen. They demonize those with new ideas and criticize mistakes rather than lauding the risk taker.

Finally, after all of these scare tactics shut creativity down completely, they criticize the lack of new ideas again.

A vicious cycle.

The Courageous Leader

The best leaders show equanimity. They are calm in the midst of the storm. They stay their course, remain on mission, and remind people of the positive vision of the outcome.

After walking through rocky territory with such a leader, you’ll hear observers say things like, “She showed real courage. She was never afraid.”

But guess what? She probably was afraid at times. But she knew that the best leadership tactic wasn’t fear mongering, but a display of courage.

Leading away from Fear

If you are assigned as the new leader of an organization that has been through tough times, extreme threats, bankruptcy, or other crises, be aware that your team is likely in survival mode. And the type of mindset that could foster innovation might seem far away.

Here are some steps you can take:

  • Talk to them about the caveman
  • Work on relaxing the environment
  • Set a positive vision of the desired outcome
  • Develop alignment
  • Stay confident and supportive

You can maintain a sense of urgency without engendering a state of fear. And that creative, gun-shy team of yours will eventually come out of their foxholes to join their new leader in moving forward.

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