Embracing Fear and Turbulence

Interview with Dov Frohman co-author of "Leadership the Hard Way: Why Leadership Can't Be Taught - and How You Can Learn It Anyway"
By Vern Burkhardt
"Leadership is a matter of courage: a willingness to take risks and do the unexpected; to make judgments with no data or, at best, inadequate data; to face one's fear of failure." How do we learn to lead like that? According to Dov Frohman and Robert Howard, co-authors of Leadership the Hard Way, by teaching ourselves using our wits, our intelligence, our observation, our intuition and our life experience.

Vern Burkhardt (VB): In the introduction to your book you say "I don't believe you necessarily have to be a CEO to be a leader" – as was the case in your leadership contribution. Is leadership from within often more effective than leadership from the top?

Photo of Dov FrohmanDov Frohman: Not necessarily more effective but with a different and often better organizational perspective. If you promote a culture of 'everybody should be a leader in their own sphere of influence' you can achieve excellent performance compared to relying only on leadership from the top.

VB: When you were starting up Intel Israel you "wanted people not only to avoid complacency but also to feel that they – and they alone – were responsible for their own fate." What did you do to encourage this?

Dov Frohman: I created a "culture of survival" built around a few simple slogans like "Be the Best" and "Do the Impossible." Once you set very high performance targets and expectations, people understand that in order for their team to excel each individual needs to be a leader and contribute at the highest level. As a result it was natural for people in the organization to align with the goal of being "The last operation to close down if Intel Corp gets in trouble." This meant that individual excellence was adequate, but not sufficient, since the ultimate test of survival was in the whole team's performance.

VB: How did having people feel they were responsible for their own fate affect your hiring, reward and promotion processes?

Dov Frohman: In terms of hiring, it projected to the outside 'world' an image of uncompromising integrity and excellence. The result was that people with high professional capability would apply to prove they could meet the high entry threshold requirements. This considerably facilitated the hiring of a top team. Our screening of candidates was based on fitting into the organization culture and professional excellence.

Promotion criteria were a combination of individual performance to targets, contribution to team goals, and efforts in developing future infrastructure. This meant that not only short term contribution but also support of the long term vision was considered. It was quite common for me to judge the individual performance ratings in a team to be too high since the overall performance of the team and the organization during that period was rather mediocre.

VB: You speak of the relationship between survival and fear saying, "a leader must know how to navigate fear...neither to exaggerate fear nor to eliminate it, but rather to contain it." Your book is about corporate leadership. Would you recommend the same approach to fear for political leaders?

Dov Frohman: While the book is based on my corporate leadership experience, the approach is really applicable to just about any kind of organization. It definitely applies to the political arena. However, my ideas about "fear" can be easily misinterpreted.

Here's my main point: any crisis generates fear. To a degree, that fear can be healthy when a good leader leverages it to turn a crisis into an opportunity. On the other hand, weak leaders tend to cause fear to be paralyzing. The result is a timid, defensive organization where a "siege mentality" dominates.

VB: Are you aware of one or two instances when a political leader has used this approach successfully?

Dov Frohman: The most common trend in this century is for leaders to promote paralyzing fear. This is partly because they are concerned with their personal political security; and partly, because they appear to be interested in 'securing' the longevity of the security establishment.

If we go back to the previous century I can find at least two instances where fear was leveraged positively. One was De Gaul's resolution of the Algeria war in the late 1950s. He realized that French colonialism in Algeria was doomed to failure in the long term. He very effectively used the French colonists' fear of a compromise solution to the conflict, and the French citizens' fear of a prolonged and bloody impasse. Rather than exaggerating either, he navigated towards the most radical solution, negotiating with the Algerian National Front for the Evian peace agreement, which involved Algerian independence and the French colonists having the option of returning to France.

The second one was the unilateral declaration of independence by Ben-Gurion in 1948 in the face of an imminent British-supported Arab onslaught. In this case, he acted against the current of those who feared that if the Jewish community in Palestine declared independence, the world would denounce the decision, and the Arab nations would attack anyway. He never resorted to painting the Arabs as demons in order to marshal support for his decision and to some extent did not exaggerate the level of fear of Arab superiority in numbers to make his decision more palatable, and get the temporary government's support for the declaration.

VB: You believe "it is impossible – and unwise – to eliminate fear completely." Yet, for many people, fear is so stressful they will make eliminating fear their primary objective. Did you find your approach to containing fear was successful with all levels of staff at Intel Israel?

Dov Frohman: In an organization focused on survival, no fear means no risk, and no risk-taking means, paradoxically, that your survival is at risk! This is similar to my notion that, if there is no resistance to change in an organization, then the change is probably not radical enough.

Of course, fear is always stressful, especially in crisis situations.
But instead of trying to eliminate fear – which is, in any case, impossible. It is better to recognize calmly the reality and do your best to contain the effects.

A good example of that was what we did during the First Gulf War. By framing our actions during that crisis in terms of "what we have to do to ensure our future," we got people to look beyond their fear and focus on maintaining the performance of the business. Naturally, the deeper you go into the organization, the more likely you will find some dissent with this approach and a wish for "guaranteed security." But even in these ranks, there were local leaders who helped alleviate the fear by building the confidence of their teams that they could meet the challenge.

But please understand what I am not saying. I am completely opposed to leaders creating an atmosphere of fear of failure. That leads directly to people shying away from risk in an attempt to avoid failure. Individual and team failure should not be handled through 'punishment' but rather through lessons learned to improve the future decision making.

VB: Given your belief that "in situations in which survival is at stake, a certain degree of fear is inevitable", and that the threats to business, society, or government survival are greater now than ever before, do you think we need to hire and elect different kinds of people to leadership roles than we have in the past? Are some personality types going to find it easier to navigate the new types of turbulence than others?

Dov Frohman: Yes. I happen to believe that people who have survived a difficult childhood and adolescence and managed to excel against all odds are better candidates than those who have had an uneventful upbringing.

For example, I believe the unusualness of Barack Obama's upbringing—the fact that his father left at an early age, that he lived in a foreign country – Indonesia – as a young boy, and that he had to struggle with defining himself as a black American coming from a bi-racial family are all experiences that have made him the mature leader that he seems to be.

Overcoming major barriers without compromising integrity at a more advanced age is also a promising qualification. However, we tend to base our selection more on a candidate's knowledge than on their experience. Leadership potential is far less the product of specific skills or personality types than it is of life experiences. As a result, some 'unlikely' candidates may rise to the occasion and excel under the most demanding circumstances.

VB: You say, "a determined focus on all the things that can possibly go wrong can be extremely mobilizing and galvanizing". How do you think things in Iraq would have played out if the Bush administration had embraced this approach?

Dov Frohman: The main problem in Bush's approach to Iraq was using a paralyzing fear, the threat that Iraq might have weapons of mass destruction, as the excuse for starting the war. He also consistently used paralyzing fear of terrorism to justify abrogation of civil liberties.

It is interesting to note that in our culture, a willingness to declare war is considered a sign of strength and a willingness to talk or negotiate is considered a sign of weakness. But declaring war without weighing the long term consequences is 'the easy way'; while an attempted resolution through negotiation is 'the hard way'. In most cases in the long term the return on investment on 'the hard way' is much higher. Nevertheless, most leaders elect to go to war first and negotiate a settlement at the end.

I would coin a guiding phrase for leaders involved in a potential armed conflict; 'If you are not strong enough to talk you are not strong enough to win a war'.

Now to answer your question... if Bush had used a worst case analysis he would have mobilized the American people towards a negotiated settlement and not have gone to war.

VB: You required your staff at Intel Israel to put hand grenade icons beside "every point where there was even the least question of potential jeopardy" when making slide presentations of proposals. Rather than becoming an obstacle to the implementation of these proposals, it in fact encouraged more discussion and more comfort with the potential risks and therefore greater likelihood of going ahead with the project. Do you think this has anything to do with the fact that the human mind is more fearful of an unexpressed or hidden threat or danger than by one recognized, acknowledged and understood?

Dov Frohman: The human mind is naturally more fearful of hidden threats. If we recognize the threat we will try to do something about it. However, in this case the potential risks were not exactly hidden in the sense that managers knew about them. The problem was, they would try to "slip them by me" by putting them on the last slide of the presentation! But that was so late in the presentation that we really didn't have the time or energy to consider them fully.

The simple and even a bit silly idea of the grenade icon was to get us to focus on the risks in context; their main advantage was that they forced people to highlight what were perceived as minor risks which did not deserve mention, while, in my view, they turned out to be major ones.

In hindsight, the most significant impact of the grenades was in forcing people to think in term of the worst case. Since our prediction capability of future adverse events and developments is minimal, the worst case scenarios may hit on an unexpected eventuality and we will be ready for it.

VB: When Intel Israel was working on your program "Sixty-Six Cents or Die" aimed at lowering your production costs by 75% you say "people worked so hard and were so creative...they did not realize just how extraordinary their performance was." Your employees probably also felt happier and more fulfilled while working on this challenge. Can this kind of intensity be sustained over the long term, or does it need to be broken up by stretches of time when an organization is following established routines?

Dov Frohman: I believe this kind of intensity needs to be sustained, and can be sustained, until you finally achieve your goal. When you are "insisting on survival," the periods of respite tend to be quite short.

I have always stated in this context that a challenged person in an exciting endeavor can work continuously without sleep for a period of time while a frustrated person in a hopeless assignment will tire out in a few hours!

VB: You speak of the importance of resistance and say "often the goal of the leader should be to maximize resistance" and that doing so "can help you understand the fears, concerns and perspectives of the people in the organization". Is this a principle that could be usefully applied to all aspects of life?

Dov Frohman: Definitely yes. Maximizing resistance is the best approach to get the feedback needed when taking the path of least resistance in all aspects of life.

In Israel, for instance, people use a common term when facing a complex problem. They say, 'it will be alright', which means: do not ask any questions because we will work it all out. This is the best prescription for an impasse and will lead to an endless process in which the true problem will never be resolved.

Not only does maximizing resistance give leaders the feedback they need to understand where everyone is coming from, it also identifies what it will take to get the organization to work together. It can also be very effective in negotiations with other stakeholders. If you get minimum resistance in a negotiation, you are very likely the "loser."

VB: You have a rule of thumb for distinguishing between "legitimate critique and mere excuses". It is that "constructive critics are often very blunt" while "excuse-makers...often phrase their objections in ways that seem reasonable, even innocuous" and that "excuses are superficially reasonable but profoundly undermining." How did you come to this understanding?

Dov Frohman: As with most of my understandings, it is based on experience.

When a leader is driving a big change, the critical inputs are generally to either support the change in order to improve the process, or to recommend a complete re-evaluation. The excuse makers try to find reasons to undermine the process. Once you experience both kinds of input and internalize the two perspectives, you understand that the excuse makers have to be subtle to disguise their intent while the critics are very direct since they do not have anything to hide. The difference then becomes very obvious.

I'll give you an example. One kind of defensive and dishonest reaction to change that I often heard came from people who said, "It's not that we disagree with the change you are proposing; it's just that we don't have the systems in place to manage it." My response always was, "better to have our support systems lag the change than to delay it. After all, the more we change, the more it will accelerate the development of the necessary support systems!"

VB: You stress the importance of "trying to find that opportunity in the middle of whatever the problem, challenge, or crisis of the moment may be – and taking advantage of it." What opportunities do you see that world leaders should be taking advantage of regarding the following three crises facing the world today: the economic crisis, the threat of terrorism, and the threat of catastrophic climate change?

Dov Frohman: I actually believe that the economic crisis and the threat of terrorism are interconnected. My simplistic view is that terrorism is a direct result of the economic gap between the haves and have-nots in the world. This gap is reflected in the fact that the rate of consumption in third world countries compared to developed countries is growing, and results in political unrest worldwide. So far this issue has been given only lip service by western leaders.

If any actions are taken they are always in the direction of providing fish rather than teaching people how to fish. In my opinion, September 11th was the direct result of this per capita gap. The western leaders, in turn, decided to declare war on terrorism as well as on the supporting countries, with no long-range plan and negligible results.

The real opportunity lies in a long-term strategy of decreasing the consumption gap with a relatively small impact on our standard of living, not just by supplying the Third World with fish hooks, but also by lowering western consumption levels.

Interestingly, almost all major proponents of the 'green revolution' stop short of proposing consumption belt tightening in their own countries. There is no leader at present who even mentions the intent for a long-range plan to reduce the income gap between the haves and the have-nots.

But, who knows, maybe the current economic crisis will force it. Meanwhile the atmosphere of uncertainty and insecurity that has gripped the whole world since 9/11 is generating exaggerated panic reactions to any perturbation which may have been the initial trigger for the present economic crisis.

As far as global climate change is concerned, I am not sure it is as ominous a problem as presented. There are dissenters in the scientific community who take a more sanguine position, "against the current." That makes them pariahs in the environmental community and, as a result, they are close to my heart! In any case, I am more worried that at the rate we are going, we will most likely kill each other long before climate change does.

VB: Do you see any particular leader or country currently tackling any of these opportunities?

cover of Leadership the Hard WayDov Frohman: All are tackling the problems in the wrong direction, the 'easy way' rather than the 'hard way.' – although, as I mentioned earlier, I think Obama has had a promising start. At least, he isn't sugar-coating the problems.

By now you probably realize that Barack Obama is the closest personification of 'Leadership the Hard Way' that I can think of.

VB: If given the chance what would you say to world leaders about dealing with these problems?

Dov Frohman: You need to change the paradigm. Stop obsessing about "security" and start articulating a vision based on long-term social education that confronts the income, consumption, and opportunity gaps in today's world.

VB: You say good instincts are more important than good planning when leading in a crisis. How can we tell, when electing politicians, if they have good instincts?

Dov Frohman: We have to take a risk with those that may appear more intuitive, based on their past record of decision making and risk taking, as well as in tackling their own more modest crises in the past. And their ability to learn from their own mistakes.

My simplistic test would be 'is the background and life experience of potential candidates conducive to them becoming leaders the Hard Way?' Take the example of how Obama handled the "crisis" in his campaign when the videotapes of his pastor's sermons began to circulate on the Internet. He could have taken the easy way out and condemned his pastor and joined in the criticisms that everyone else was making. Instead, he chose a more "risky" path – to give a major presentation on race in America. That's true leadership. And it also turned out to be key in saving his campaign!

VB: Often political leaders are a disappointment. They tend not to be dynamic, inspiring, honestly human, original or daring. Often it is just more of the same, even down to corruption. The media's tendency to dig up all skeletons, however minute, may contribute to many good people's avoidance of the political arena, or perhaps it is the nature of the arena itself that discourages really good people. Do you have any ideas for attracting the best political candidates?

Dov Frohman: You know, when good people say they avoid politics because it's a messy arena or because they don't want to give up their privacy (assuming, of course, they have nothing to hide!), I think it's just making poor excuses.

I think the real reason many potential leaders avoid politics is that it is a very hard arena to excel in, especially for candidates who come from industry or the military. Like any new arena, one has to spend the time to learn how to contribute and excel. As a result, I think successful people are reluctant to move into a new arena for fear of failure, as well as not being excited to make a major discipline and lifestyle change late in a successful career.

The Obama precedent of a leader coming more or less from outside the established political system should encourage young potential leaders worldwide to take the jump into politics. Another potential source of new political leaders is the fact that today there are many more young CEOs who achieve success relatively early in life. It could be that at least some will want to expand their learning and their potential for contribution by entering the political sphere.

VB: You maintain that the most important job of a leader is to "insist on survival". Our current leaders seem to be insisting on survival of the economy and business as usual, rather on the survival of sustainable life on this planet. What are your thoughts on this issue?

Dov Frohman: The biggest problem is that most current leaders are concerned with their own personal survival in power. The great leaders insist on survival of the organization, the nation, and the planet. There is a lot of talk about sustainability but very little real action.

The other paradoxical phenomenon is that leaders rely on polls to chart their course of action so they can be re-elected. But if leaders are interested in driving change like sustainability, instead of merely reacting to public opinion, they need to shape it. People seldom elect to go for change, and leadership of change has to be against the current.

VB: How can we tell when selecting CEOs or senior leaders for organizations if they have good instincts?

Dov Frohman: We need to broaden the selection criteria for business leaders. For instance, we should be analyzing whether a potential leader has the capacity to learn – especially from his or her own failures and mistakes. How had a potential leader navigated through past crises? Does he or she have the ability to develop and nurture intuitive leadership in the ranks? It's the rare company that asks such questions!

VB: You talk about the importance of values in a corporation, that an organization's values are its anchor in times of turbulence. How would you extrapolate on this making it relevant not just to corporations but to governments and entire countries?

Dov Frohman: A vision that is anchored in values is the cornerstone of any leadership, be it in a corporation, a government, or an entire country.

If we choose integrity as a very relevant example, it turns out that many of today's leaders are enveloped in a thick cloud of corruption or manipulation of issues – like the nuclear threat from Iraq. A leader without integrity cannot expect to have the trust and following of his or her people, regardless of the type of organization.

In addition to the trust issue, once the truth starts to leak out – as it inevitably does – the leaders are 'forced' to do further manipulation of policies to support their personal survival, which may take an organization or country years to recover from. Moreover, leaders who loose trust will have a hard time marshalling people's support in a time of crisis.

A country that steps closer to moral bankruptcy does not need a security establishment since the young generation will leave, with nobody left to defend.

VB: You were particularly vigilant in implanting good values at Intel Israel, because Israel's "traditional business culture involved a lot of cutting of ethical corners". You were successful in setting and keeping excellent ethical standards at Intel Israel. Have you seen or heard anything to indicate other Israeli companies or institutions are following your example?

Dov Frohman: I don't have information on the impact of my example on other Israeli companies or institutions. However, I am very skeptical that there was a significant impact.

Witnessing some of the recent corruption and criminal charges leveled at the highest levels of government and parliament I am pretty sure the lesson has not been learned. With this kind of example from the top I do not have any reason to believe that the private sector is free from shortcuts when it comes to ethical standards.

VB: You say one of your retirement projects is to create "a center for alternative thinking" in southern Israel. How is that coming along?

Dov Frohman: The motto for the Center for Different Thinking is this quote from Bertrand Russell: "The fact that an opinion has been widely held is no evidence whatever that it is not utterly absurd. Indeed, in view of the silliness of the majority of mankind, a widespread belief is more likely to be foolish than sensible"

The Center is still in the incubation stage. The Catch 22 is that its foundation requires different thinking. In other words, the dilemma is 'what is the process of making different thinking a way of life for the young generation, and can you arrive at it through different thinking'?

Frankly, I have not figured it out yet.

VB: How else would you like to use your knowledge and skills to help Israel and the world?

Dov Frohman: I believe promoting different thinking on a wide spectrum of issues from social through education to environmental with the hope of finding ways to impact the income gap will keep me thinking differently for awhile.

VB: Is it lonely providing leadership the hard way?

Dov Frohman:
Yes it is!

Almost by definition, since if you are surrounded by people who think like you, it is not likely that you will make breakthrough changes.

Dov Frohman believes that leadership can't be taught but it can be learned. He concludes his book by naming four resources an aspiring leader can use in order to learn how to lead:

  1. Stay true to your passion: find out your true passion and define a vision or mission to which you are willing to dedicate yourself, and be prepared to renew your passion over time.

  2. Study invisible mentors: choose someone whose behavior you admire and study them from afar.

  3. Become a reflective practitioner: learn how to learn from your own experience at the moment you are experiencing it. You can learn to do this by developing an active inner life through daydreaming and practicing intuitive problem solving and by developing the habit of reflecting honestly on your everyday activities.

  4. Learn from your people: this you can do by developing close relationships with your people by being present, by not being afraid to admit to and expose your own mistakes, by welcoming dissent, and by modeling the kind of behavior you would like to see in others.

Dov Frohman Bio:
Dov Frohman helped found Intel Israel in 1974, became general manager in 1981, and headed the organization until his retirement in 2001. He studied electrical engineering at the Israel Institute of Technology, and received a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California at Berkeley. He invented the EPROM, the first reprogrammable read-only semiconductor memory – an innovation, according to Intel founder Gordon Moore, "as important in the development of the microcomputer industry as the microprocessor". In recognition Doc Frohman received the IEEE Jack Morton Award in 1982 and the IEEE Edison Medal in 2008. (Vern's note: IEEE was originally the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.)

Dov Frohman co-authored with Robert Howard Leadership The Hard Way: Why Leadership Can't be Taught and How You Can Learn It Anyway.


Leadership can be learned is true and a high minded statement. The 4 resources you suggest at the end of your book and article each hold a lifetime of mindset change. For example, "Stay true to your passion." By the time one has gone though innumerable passions in a day or a lifetime, he needs to learn and practice the meaning of dedication and discipline. Then his passion changes again and ...

Study invisible mentors... Who has the stability of mind to do this long enough? We are often frustrated at lack of success in the first 30 days. Then we turn odd and off-kilter.

And more...

Are we lost for good, or can we re-invest in the longer shorter way?

- Chavah

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