Leading in a Culture of Fear

Written by: Jordan Tinney

Published On: August 11th 2020


In March, our lives changed forever. The very foundations of who we are have been shaken in multiple ways. We are social beings who thrive on contact with each other. We are humble, caring, compassionate and we live in a multicultural world normally with open borders, amazing opportunities and promise. Then along came COVID. Signs telling us not to interact with each other, not even with our aging parents, surrounded us. Suddenly, we represented a threat to each other just by our very presence. Businesses were shut, schools were closed, people lost jobs and people lost their lives.

Borders were closed, travel was cancelled, we locked ourselves away and began living a new life. For many people, they were afraid to go out. In a blink of an eye, the very small act of going to the store to get milk seemed a risk and you didn’t know milk would be there if you did go. Getting groceries involved standing in line so as not to be close to anyone, following arrows telling you where to go and where to stand and finally, paying to a cashier protected from you by a large plexiglass shield. The messages are clear, be wary of your neighbour.

In amongst all this uncertainty, fingers were being pointed. China was being singled out and we had repeated escalation of racial violence. On May 5th, in downtown Vancouver, a man walked up and punched an Asian woman in the face as she waited for the bus. Events like this, whether verbal or physical were on the rise and were shaking our beliefs in our compassion as a society. Then, on May 25th, a police officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck until he died. Our world erupted.

These events have impacted us all and most certainly our schools. On March 17th, we suspended in-class instruction and a majority of children in British Columbia have not set foot in a classroom in close to 6 months despite a voluntary partial return in June where 200,000 children attended for at least one day. This absence from the classrooms is mirrored across our country and continent. What have we learned?

We have learned that people are afraid and this fear is not irrational, it’s not misplaced. The fear is real and a different form of leadership needs to unfold to help people return to a place of calm and comfort. What type of leadership will help us navigate the complexity and ambiguity? One lens to help view this current context and to help inform leadership is David Rock’s SCARF model. I have written about this before, but I want to reference it again as it applies to COVID-19 and world events.

SCARF is an acronym for Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness. David Rock suggests that when any of these attributes are shaken in an unpredictable way, the brain acts with an emotional response triggering the amygdala. Rock suggests that research shows that the classic “fight or flight” response can result from social interactions. I believe that our world context, and COVID hits not just one, but each of these facets of our social lives and helps us understand why people are afraid. Let’s look just at the role of the classroom teacher but this could just as readily apply to education assistants, principals, or school clerks.

As I write the below, I want to be clear that the descriptions below have emerged from emails I have received, from comments I have heard and watched on social media and from listening to others. These are not my views, but these are views that are out there and these views help us understand what leadership will need in the coming months.

Status – teachers are role models for society. We care for children, we nurture them, we help them learn and we act in loco parentis, in place of the parent for several hours a day. This is an enormous responsibility to care for children. Suddenly, COVID thrusts us into a new world asking us to go back to work as a primary means to restart the economy. Our very health is at risk, and potentially the health of our children in our care so that people can go to work. I didn’t sign up to be daycare for the economy. I signed up to help children learn and to follow my passion for caring for children and for teaching.

Certainty – I cannot go to the grocery store the way I have been used to all my life. I cannot visit my aging parents for whom I care. I cannot travel, I cannot rely on my job existing in the same way or even existing at all. On any given year, a certainty is that children go to school. They have done this since Plato. This coming year, will parents send their children to school? I am not even certain that I want to go to school where we know that what we do is gather in large social groups and all around us we are told not to gather.

Autonomy – a bedrock of BC’s success in education is teacher autonomy. While we have a provincial curriculum and policy at the provincial and local level, the way in which instruction unfolds in a classroom is the domain of the teacher. To battle the pandemic, I am now thrust into an online and hybrid world that requires me to learn new tools, to try new methods, to adopt technologies and practices that I have not experienced and was not necessarily planning to experience. In a blink of an eye, I have gone from a classroom based face to face teacher, to a blended face to face and online or remote teacher who does not have the ability to see their children face to face as I normally wish. I appear to have little say in these changes, their speed, and their impact on my work. Things seem beyond my control and normally I exert great control over the learning environment for my students.

Relatedness – we need to be able to work collaboratively and to move in social circles. Matthew Lieberman of UCLA states it best in his research “because, to a mammal, being socially connected to caregivers is necessary for survival.” We are social beings and we crave and seek social interaction. When we are told to stay home, to not gather, meet or interact then these social bonds are broken. In our schools, teachers constantly talk with their colleagues about instruction. They share about students, about their learning, their needs and when cut off from this interaction, their ability to relate to their colleagues is shattered and fractured.

Fairness – when something isn’t seen as fair, it generates a strong response from the limbic system and can create hostility and undermine trust. In the current school and societal context, the difficult messaging around COVID and precautions can create a view of unfairness. How is it that the cashier at the grocery store is behind plexiglass while the clerk in our school is not? Why is a waiter required to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) when he takes our order at a restaurant but a teacher is not required to wear PPE when they teach students? Why are we told to limit our gatherings and to keep our circles very small yet we are going to open schools with up to 2000 students in attendance? Where is the fairness in the messaging for schools and what I see unfolding in society around me?

As I stated above, I’m writing the above as representative of some of the views I have heard. My point is to illustrate that people are not irrational, they are dealing with a very natural response to what they are perceiving around them. The neuroscience of David Rock tells us that when our social structures are challenged and disrupted, that people will respond in measures rooted in fear.

When dealing with fear, our role as leaders is not to “talk sense into them” or to “help them get over it,” our job is to accept that people are under unusual stress and that they are struggling to gain certainty and autonomy in the world that surrounds them. To lead in these times does not require logic or directives, leadership in these times, unlike any I have ever seen, requires clarity, calm, and compassion. How might you do that? Here are a few key suggestions:

  1. Be calm – anxiety and uncertainty spread. When people feel that leaders are anxious or uncertain, then it only leads others to be uncertain as well. Cheryl Strayed reminds us that “fear begets fear” and those around you will feed off of your emotions as well.
  2. Be clear – in The Advantage, Patrick Lencioni talks about the importance of clarity. In his suggested model, he asserts healthy organizations build a cohesive team, create clarity, reinforce clarity, and over communicate clarity. In times of uncertainty, people are looking for clarity and consistency in messaging whether they agree with the messaging or not.
  3. Be compassionate – the last thing people need in times of anxiety and fear is to feel that you don’t care. Their stories are real. Their fears are real. Their perceptions are real to them. You must believe people and you must accept their world view as it unfolds for them.
  4. Be collaborative – this is not the time for one heroic leader with all the answers. This is a time to open the doors, to bring people in, to work together on building the best possible future. If you are not reaching out, if you are not listening to diverse views with compassion and empathy, then you are not going to be able to make the best decisions possible. Strong leadership in these times means giving away power, this is not the time for control and directives generated in isolation.


This is a long blog but I felt it was important to talk about how we all might view some of the context that surrounds us. The great orator and humanitarian Stephen Lewis reminds us that “children have a spontaneous, instinctive need to go to school.” There are few things in life that I am as passionate about as the role of public education in a healthy and vibrant society. The events of this year have impacted us all deeply. As we work together to rebuild society there is little doubt that education plays a key role. The rebuilding will require leadership on all fronts and hopefully the SCARF model provides some insight into how we can set the context and begin the planning to see a return to school for all children.

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