Fear and the Price Tag of Trust

Originally Published in Fair Value

As a young boy growing up in Peer, it was natural I’d want to learn to ride a bike. For though Belgium is not awash with heroes, we had all heard of Eddy Merckx, widely regarded as the world’s greatest cyclist.

The problem, at least at first, was that I wasn’t very good. No sooner would I start pedaling than I’d panic and crash to the ground? After yet another painful tumble, my father once exclaimed, “The problem is, you’re so afraid of falling that you forget to push through.”

Fear and Stress are Human

Fear, of course, can be both physical and mental. In acutely stressful situations, we trigger hormones that have their evolutionary root in our ancestral environment. When faced with danger, our bodies tell us to either fight, flee, or freeze. The symptoms include heart palpitations, sweaty palms, and the need to pee! Psychologically, our attention is drawn to the immediate, our focus narrows, and we act according to our instincts rather than any deeper reasoning.

I sometimes wonder if there’s a political equivalent. In the US, as I write, the nation is in the midst of the Trump-Biden presidential campaigns. The anxiety is palpable and, in many ways, more so than any policy differences. Rustbelt America dreads the return of an out-of-touch elite; the graduates of Boston abhor what they read on Twitter; our banks are concerned about a move to the Left; our destitute remain fearful of the Right. It comes to something when even the postal system has been politicized for fear of fraud in what’s regarded as the home of freedom. 

Something similar is happening in the UK. The issue of Brexit has paralyzed British politics for the last five years and arguably longer. Business is disrupted, investment is delayed, and uncertainty and mistrust are endemic. Despite a referendum and a general election, there is no sign of a consensus that might unite the nation in a common endeavor. The schism between those who would fight and those who would flee is as divisive and draining as ever.

Balancing Interests is Fundamental for Business

Imagine if we were to run a business this way-if, there were no requirements to balance the interests of stakeholders but rather to meet only the needs of those who held the most sway. Such a model would tear our companies apart, destroying value for all through the pursuit of a blinkered agenda. If I have learned anything as an organizational leader, it’s that sustainable progress requires a broader and longer-range perspective than the hollow promises of trouble-shooters and partisans. 

This is not to say that decisive action is never required— procrastination can be as deadly as impetuousness. But it is that good business must do more and better than decide by the majority or follow homogenous agendas. That’s why diversity is so important. We thrive, and make better decisions, by considering a variety of perspectives; by ensuring we have not only social, ethnic, and gender balance in our teams but something of the same in our modes of thinking—we need creatives and disruptors just as much as we need hard-nosed operators and cautious finance directors.

The historian Niall Ferguson has spoken of the lack of empathy in contemporary political debate, as if putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes is to concede the unthinkable, to legitimize the other who threatens our sense of safety. Ferguson is an erudite academic, a Stanford fellow who must cringe at the gaucheness or superficiality of any other populist political agenda. And yet, perhaps more than a commentator, he has sought to understand and communicate its appeal, acknowledging that while populist leaders have a loose relationship to facts, they also call out truths that are deeply felt by many. His theme is not that these are noble politicians but that unless we allow ourselves to look beyond their rhetoric and acknowledge the concerns that underlie their appeal, we will not make progress together. We need to listen and try to understand the views and concerns of others than ourselves, even if we are convinced that they are “wrong.”

It’s Important to expect the Best of Our Leaders

To be this generous is difficult. My response to the political decisions I perceive as foolish or unjust ranges from anger to despair –and especially so when there is a disingenuity to those delivering the message. In a sense, it’s a cognitive equivalent of the fight or flight phenomenon. My values tell me there are lines we must not cross, and on these, I am firm. But I also know that politics is not an ethical exercise-that that weighs more heavily than what ought and that the pursuit of power has its own self-rationalizing dynamic. To expect better of our leaders is better held as a hope than an expectation. 

Hope, nonetheless, is a powerful counterforce to the problems of the present. It’s why all leaders trade on vision and why those in business must do likewise-though ideally, with more veracity and sincerity than their political counterparts. Vision-in the sense of laying out a positive future for our companies-is in many ways what modern leadership is most about. To succeed, we must bring others with us, keep our word, and win the trust of more than a slim majority.

The Price Tag of Trust is Fundamental

The cost of fear-or, put differently, the price tag of trust is intangibly vast. In football management, the term “lose the dressing room” means to have lost the confidence of your players. It invariably ends in tears. After the financial crash, our banks spent millions of dollars revisiting their values – a decade later they’re still trying to convince us. The police and other public bodies are under similar pressure- Black Lives Matter is but one example of injustices that are deeply felt by those who’ve lost faith. 

When our fears are most immediate-and most beyond our control-we, seek salvation in simplicity. That’s why in a crash, the demand for gilts and gold will rise-a “Rush to quality” is what it’s known as. We look to authority, too, whether that be through prayers or deference to hierarchies that compensate for our f of impotence. Salvation means, literally, to be saved from ruin-it strikes me the appeal of populist politics is something similar. 

In certain situations, this approach may be appropriate. When faced with a hurricane, most of us know it’s best to follow the advice of the experts. But to resolve more complex problems and overcome discord that is deeply rooted, we must look beyond simplistic panaceas. We must pool our knowledge and ideas and have the courage, as leaders, to give way to the wisdom of others. To overcome fear, we must find what unites us before addressing what divides us.

In his magnificent book, “Sapiens: A brief History of Humankind,” Yuval Noah Harari chronicles the progress of humanity. Eschewing the usual chronology of princes and kings, he examines how, as a species, we have made such remarkable progress-reflecting on what it is about our abilities and psychology that has taken us from a few hundred thousand to eight billion individuals. And at root, his answer lies in our ability to work flexibly together, using language and reasoning to keep faith with ideas that bind us in common causes-be those money, nation-states, laws-and, more recently, in historical terms, companies, and international institutions.

I take strength from his long-term perspective. Not only in the stoic maxim of “this too will pass” but in the knowledge that regressive periods, such as the one in which I believe we’re currently mired, are blips on the curve. There are more millennials in China than the entire population of the United States-no amount of retrenchment will resist that commercial imperative and the opportunities it brings. We are, on the whole, freer today than we have ever been; we are less likely to die from conflict, have longer life expectancy, and have better education. Many of our deepest fears are trivial compared to those our forefathers took in their stride. 

There are exceptions to this optimism-the climate crisis is perhaps the most obvious, and we shouldn’t live on the basis that “all will be well in the Twenty-second Century.” But as I learned as a boy, the surest way to fall from a bike is to focus only on the wheel in front of you. To make collective progress-be that in business, politics, or as people-we must have faith in our future, care for each other, and a trust that extends beyond tomorrow. 

My father was wrong when he said I wasn’t pushing through; the problem was that I wasn’t looking far enough ahead. 

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: