You Can Lead by Fear or Lead by Love

Aug 18, 2022 | Leadership

When I was a Pastor on staff at Saddleback Church, one of my favorite spots to hang out on the weekends was the green room, backstage. It’s not just that some kind volunteers stock it with breakfast burritos on Sunday mornings or hot Thai food in the evenings, it was really about the conversations that happened there. (And maybe a little about the Thai food.)

During the workweek, everyone in the offices was focused on various regular and routine tasks, but in the green room on the weekends, there were always conversations about vision, fresh ideas, and leadership. Often, tapping into my introvert super-strength, I simply sat in the corner and listened.

One particular Sunday, David Chrzan (who hired me), Dave Greene, and Todd Olthoff were in a deep conversation, and Dave shared a vital leadership principle…

You can lead by fear, or you can lead by love.

I’d read the verse that says, “Perfect love casts out fear,” (1 John 4:28) plenty of times, but I’d never thought about applying it to the realm of leading others inside a movement or an organization. When we left Saddleback to plant a church in Northwest Arkansas, that axiom deeply impacted the way we structured things.

Leading by Fear

When we lead by fear, we have an insatiable need to be in control. Our anxiety goes up when we’re not able to predict outcomes. Rather than trusting that people will make wise decisions, we take away their freedom and dictate their direction for them.

In a fear-based leadership culture, nobody gets to do much without approval from the power brokers. Decisions need to be carried up the ladder to the top. Leading by fear is our way of making sure things go our way and that nothing happens that winds up reflecting negatively on our leadership.

The problem is, when people don’t have the freedom to make decisions (even wrong ones, sometimes), they don’t grow. Fear-based leadership is an automatic lid on the growth of the people whom we are leading.

Unfortunately, we don’t see fear-based leading for what it is. Instead, we see ourselves as protectors of a cause. If I let them give the kids candy, they’ll put fingerprints on the walls… and doesn’t God despise messy walls?

Leading by Love

Leadership that is motivated by love seeks to elevate, empower, and allow freedom for other people to grow, even if it means they outgrow our own leadership.

Leaders who lead by love give permission whenever appropriate to do so. They pass the decision as far down the ladder as possible, not because they don’t want the responsibility, but because they know that others only grow under the weight of responsibility.

Leaders ask questions like:

  • Who needs this responsibility so they can apply their gifts?
  • How can I invite others into this decision?
  • What is best for other people even if it costs me something personally?
  • Am I willing to defend those I’ve empowered to make decisions when appropriate to do so?
  • Who needs a shot? Who needs a moment of significance?

When we lead out of love, we forget about ourselves, our turf, and our glory. We start to think about how we can help other people to grow their skills, their confidence, and their readiness for bigger tasks ahead.

Fear strips others of power, but love empowers.

You can lead out of fear and probably do an okay job of keeping things in line organizationally, but people won’t grow. They’ll feel stifled and held back and potentially leave for better opportunities.

Or you can lead out of love and people will flourish. I hope we’ll choose love.


Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash.

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