Leadership Lesson #6

Learn To Walk With Fear: Vornida Seng

“I have had dreams and I have had nightmares, but I have conquered my nightmares because of my dreams.” 
—Jonas Salk

I’ve seen fear cause good leaders to do bad things. It has a way of creeping into even the best of organizational environments, especially during times of change and uncertainty. The ‘fear effect’ upon organizations can be crippling:

  • Fear kills employee spirit and thwarts employee engagement;
  • Fear limits communication;
  • Fear fosters short-term thinking;
  • Fear can cause good and ethical people to juggle data while monitoring the process to avoid repercussions from management; “Where there is fear, there will be wrong figures;”
  • Fear generates “please-the-boss,” “look-good-at-any-cost,” behavior;

And what do we fear inside of organizations? A cursory look paints a picture of a cubicle filled nation paralyzed by fear:

  • Fear of being disciplined or receiving poor appraisals;
  • Fear of failure, which inhibits us from taking risks and innovating;
  • Fear creates a chain reaction of negative behaviors such as competition and creates anxiety;
  • Fear destroys trust;
  • Fear of success. Success brings enemies. People are afraid that success may damage their relationships with their peers;
  • Fear of new knowledge or tools. “We don’t have the time to learn all that.”
  • Fear of change. Change may cause employees to fear that they are going to lose something; they feel that their power may be diminished.
  • Fear of speaking up.
  • Fear of losing face;
  • Fear of job loss and security;

The ‘Fear Effect’

When fear finds its home, efforts at encouraging innovation and sustaining customer loyalty without alleviating it are often short lived. Yet if we are to reach our potential as leaders, managing our fears must become an integral part of our skill set.

Meeting Vornida Seng brought me face to face with the power of learning to walk with fear. Thirty years ago, as a very young woman, Vornida Seng walked for weeks across her native Cambodia. Today, the memories still haunt her and they began when Khmer Rouge soldiers burst into the five-bedroom home of Vornida and her family.

Dictator Pol Pot had decided that in order to create the perfect communist state, he would first empty the cities. “Thousands of people filled the streets,” Vornida recalls. “Corpses lay by the road. Hospital patients, some with IV bottles, tried to walk with the crowd. I began to walk, and I walked for weeks,” she recounted. “We reached a village near the Thailand border. My mother and my brothers and sisters and I were forced to work twelve hours a day in the rice fields.”

They built their own primitive hut from the surrounding bamboo trees. Vornida’s grandmother and sister contracted malaria, and within days her grandmother was dead. Three weeks later, Vornida’s little sister, her eyes open and full of tears, died in her lap. Vornida’s mother, like most of the villagers, was starving. She died and left Vornida to care for her remaining siblings. “We ate anything,” she recalls, “from scorpions to lizards, rats, and grasshoppers.” Vornida and her brothers Siphano, nine, and Visothy, eight, and her sister Methegany, ten, were sent to a mountain prison camp. Visothy died in Vornida’s arms of high fever and starvation. Soldiers tied little Siphano to a tree. “His eyes were shut, and the soldiers kept hitting him with their rifles. They brought bees and ants to sting him until he lost consciousness.” He died shortly thereafter.

In December 1978, the Pol Pot regime started to crumble. Carrying her remaining sister, Methegany, in a basket, Vornida started to walk again. She walked hundreds of miles to a neighboring village and hitched a ride to the province of Siem Reap in frantic search of a hospital for little Methegany. A few days later, Methegany died. A local driver for Time magazine took her in and alerted the Bangkok bureau chief. Time magazine sponsored Vornida, paid her passage to the United States, and gave her the job she continues to hold today in New York City. Vornida Seng walked with fear.

Courage As A Leadership Tool

Although most of us will never encounter the type of fear or tragic circumstances of Vornida Seng, her story can help us learn to walk with our fears. Vornida serves as a sort of courage tool —proof of the tenacity of the human spirit, its ability to transcend fears and tragic circumstances. 

When you feel fear percolating into your life, visualize Vornida Seng walking. Look at the issue or challenge or person and compare the situation to what Vornida faced as a young girl. Within this context, when we face our fears, we call forth the remarkable ability to make fear disappear.