Can You Scare People Into Elite Performance?

The answer: You can’t be scared and elite at the same time.


This one might roll off the tongues of elite athletes, entrepreneurs, soldiers, and performers of all types. I will do my best to sum up.

During a recent walk with my wife, Lindsay, in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we had a good discussion of what really holds people back from being great performers.  As we walked and talked, the topic of fear came up. You know fear.  Everybody does on some level.  Even for the most narcissistic among us, there is the subtle fear of being found out.  But for the rest of us, there is normal fear and anxiety that come with actually wanting to perform well.

My wife, whose history as a swimmer has put her in league with some of the most elite of her sport and whose current passion as a coach gives her constant concern with what can help her swimmers perform better, summed up some of her swimmers’ performance as being highly correlated with their fear of disappointing their parents.

In other words, they didn’t perform well because they wanted to–they performed well because they were scared of the consequences of not performing well.  To paraphrase our joint reaction to that, let me just put it in a single quote:

“Fear may be a great motivator for performance, but it will never be the great motivator for elite performance.”

That’s what we concluded, and in the midst of a long walk, the applicability of this insight from a sport with highly objective measurements–the clock doesn’t lie–to the world of business rang true.

I once advised a CEO who admitted to me that his go-to move was to induce fear.  Create fear, hold people’s feet to the fire, and they perform.  Oh, and if they don’t, then fire them outright and find someone who will.  It’s quite a philosophy.  It’s one that I absolutely see the merit of, but only so far as one is trying to go from bad to good.  In other words, a turnaround situation can be led via fear, but not a situation that is focused on extending and defending an elite franchise. Ultimately this CEO found great success in the turnaround, but not in the extension of success.


Because fear is a constraining motivation. In the immortal words of Peter from the movie Office Space:

“That will make someone work just hard enough not to get fired.”

And it does. Because when we are scared, we only focus on what it takes to get out of our fear zone.  That means we go fast enough and try hard enough to placate our parents or our boss.

Yes, placate. As in, just do what’s required.  We never get into the mode of doing what may be possible.

This may seem obvious in the world of 12-year-old swimmers trying not to bear the wrath of overzealous (let’s just say it, jerk) parents, but it applies to the workplace you work in (or lead) today.  If you only know how to instill fear in people, then they will only try to work until that fear is mitigated.

If you try to instill possibilities in people, then some of them will answer the call.  They will seek what is possible. They will become elite, and elite organizations can only be elite if at least some of their people are performing at an elite level.

Not everybody can be elite, but every person with the potential to be elite can be held back by a leader who only knows how to wield the constraining force of fear.

I’ve had the opportunity to work alongside truly elite athletes, and have been exposed to Olympians of many flavors thanks to marrying well.  I’ll characterize those elite performers in a few ways:

Some have seemed absolutely oblivious to their greatness.  I get the sense that Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts has this quality.  They just do and things work well.  They answer the call because, well, it’s the thing to do.

Some have gathered their eliteness from the genuine joy of competition, from a combination of pure talent and a positive mindset. I always thought of 12-time Olympic medalist Jenny Thompson as this sort.  They answer the call because winning is fun, by golly.

Some are simply professionals.  They focus on every play as though others depend on them at all times.  I was fortunate to play alongside many men who had this kind of quality.  A few who come to mind are 13-year NFL veteran linebacker Chris Draft, longtime NFL linebacker Kailee Wong, and offensive lineman and coach Chris Dalman of the San Francisco 49ers.  They answer the call because it reflects a commitment to being great.

What you’ll notice is that I name no one who was elite by being scared.  I saw elites motivated by joy, commitment, even anger…

…But not fear.

In short, I’ll put it this way: You can’t be scared and elite at the same time.  

Elite performance results from confidence and the reflected belief of unconstrained possibility.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this one…

6 replies
  1. bg
    bg says:

    Another example of how parenting and running a business are similar … one cannot parent and have children performing well at school or at home for fear of punishment from their parents if expectations are not met … parenting, coaching, consulting all must be done with finesse. Parents need to encourage elite performance in their children by nurturing confidence and showing them the joy of participation and possibility. The goal of the family working as a team is important to nurture. The best results for the family come when everyone is able to see the possibilities of success in tackling jobs and schoolwork with a positive attitude. School is your child’s job for many years … you as a parent want them to want to do well …to find joy in doing their best and discovering their passions along the way. An elite performance at home … at school… or in a chosen sport or instrument, etc … allows the child to be filled with joy in the realization they have personally accomplished this … not because they HAD to do it because their parents told them they’d better or else … they did it … got their best grade yet … went faster … played or wrote a new song … whatever it is … to have the freedom to soar and the encouragement to reach for the stars is the best a parent can do. Off my soapbox now … this stirred up something!!

    • Geoff Wilson
      Geoff Wilson says:

      Great points, BG. The parenting link is where this conversation started. The basic thing is, sure you can turnaround bad behavior or poor performance using fear, but you can never (rarely?) unlock “joy” and discovery as you put it. Love it.

  2. Suzanne Behla
    Suzanne Behla says:

    I’d be curious to know how many great athletes strive to become great, to get parent, coach etc approval in homes where their parents are too busy, or nothing is ever good enough, so they keep pushing harder? Wanting love and acceptance rather than just performing well enough not to get the wrath.

    • Geoff Wilson
      Geoff Wilson says:

      There are certainly personalities that fit that profile. I’d be interested if anyone reacting to this post believes that the search for approval is any better a motivator than fear.

      I think it is.

      You can certainly identify who has elite talent (and an elite mindset) by setting unbounded expectations (maybe a more benign view of “nothing is ever good enough”) and challenging people toward them.

      I think a big difference between acting out of fear and acting out of a need to please is whether the person you fear/want to please has your back. I wrote one on this a long time ago at this link:

  3. John Lock
    John Lock says:

    I really enjoyed reading this post – there is a great deal of wisdom in the words. I am guessing that many of the people reading this blog have known the feeling of being in the “zone” or “flow”, without conscious thought, as they executed flawlessly, leading to one of the best outcomes of their careers. Believing that great leadership inspires others to act on or for intrinsic, as opposed to external, motivators, I would posit that acting out of fear or even for approval might make this impossible as either circumstance is externally driven. As Aaron Hurst discusses in “The Purpose Economy”, there is always room for purpose in everything we do. It’s up to all of us to encourage discovery and action against these purposes to enable “doing what may be possible” rather than “do what’s required.” Thanks, Geoff!

    • Geoff Wilson
      Geoff Wilson says:

      You’re welcome, John. I’m still trying to find the zone for writing, so your comment helps…


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