In the short essay “Can I Be Fearless?” by the internationally eminent organizational consultant, leadership trainer and teacher, Margaret Wheatley, available on the Internet at several locations, is everything I’m glad about what is happening with intention regarding the improvement of fear management/education (FME) today—and, unfortunately, everything that is ‘wrong’ (distortive) with how we still think and talk and teach about fear. My position has been that we haven’t had an appropriate 21st century upgrade in our “program” of how we conceive FME for a long time and its more than overdue. Fisher and Subba (2016) concluded,
There is something profoundly new to be said about fear and its impacts in the
21st century. The sooner it is said the better otherwise the evidence shows we will
continue losing ground to fear—realizing one day, fear has us in its ominous
grip—and, our healthy fearuality development (analogous to sexuality) is compromised. (p. xxi)
If we cannot arrive at an upgraded and disciplined multiperspectival view of fear itself within the near future as an intervention, then the Fear Problem will continue to rule and destroy life on this planet to the point of mass extinctions (Fisher, 2016).
Before I begin my critique of how Wheatley teaches about fear and FME in this essay, that I think her teaching is almost a “standard” for most teachers who talk about fear. That said, she is also one of the ‘cream of the crop’ organizational consultants and human leadership teachers on the planet today. She brings a welcomed Buddhist perspective to much of her work and to the functioning of a healthy workplace in the Western world. I have published off and on of her positive contributions and her critical and useful challenge for all of us to think better about the 21st century in terms of how we relate to fear, personally and collectively. In particular, two of her publications are worth noting, of which I have honored for their direction we need to go, and which I ended my book (Fisher, 2010) with: (a) “Eight Fearless Questions” in 2006 and, (b) “Fearlessness: The Last Organizational Change Strategy” in 2007.
When I recently found and read her essay “Can I Be Fearless?” (Wheatley, 2008), I decided to carefully analyze it to see what if any thing might be new in her synthesis and teaching of FME. It struck me as a good teaching case study.
Problem of Use of Terms
The first problematic in this short essay is her unsystematic classification system (i.e., no system) for terms that are crucially important in any FME curriculum. There is no adequate attention given to discussion of fear per se or with a philosophy and/or theory of fear to accompany and support it. Where is her starting point for a discussion of fearless, if one has no robust idea of what she defines or means by fear?
I don’t necessarily expect something complex and scholarly in such an explicit defining, as her piece is obviously written as a quick and practical overview for the practitioner. However, this is an omission too often found in 95% of the writing I read on FME. Thus, she, like the rest, assume the reader already knows what fear is (i.e., an emotion, is the assumed default “truth”). I have challenged this type of omission in a recent article (Fisher, 2016a) by criticizing it functions as a political and epistemic hegemonic (dominating) discourse—and, thus a tragic distortion of the four major ways/discourses of knowing fear on the planet (i.e., beyond, fear is an emotion discourse). In fairness to Wheatley, she does draw on two opening quotes referring to “fear” by rather famous spiritual teachers, Hafiz and Parker Palmer, who say a few things about fear but do not define it either, other than indirectly. They do at least acknowledge, as does Wheatley herself, the importance of fear in shaping the human condition—of which, my own work with Desh Subba supports (e.g., Fisher and Subba, 2016).
Secondly, she repeatedly exchanges “fearless” with “fearlessness,” of which I have argued is a very common tendency, which has no theoretical or philosophical grounds to do so—and thus, falls into a common populist discourse usage with the same looseness (Fisher, 2016b). It also contravenes (seemingly by ignoring), the decades of scholarly work others and I have done on the topic. Albeit, I can forgive her somewhat for this loose use of these terms because I never articulated the integral theory of fear management systems until Fisher (2010), making the explicit distinction based on a good deal of historical and cross-cultural research. I have argued, however, since the early 1990s that “Fearless” is a very high level (or stage) of evolutionary and personal development of consciousness that includes but transcends “fearlessness.” They are best used not interchangeably.
Her focus, despite the title of the essay (on “fearless”), is on “fearlessness” and there is some worthy material there. Again, without having defined “fear” earlier, it leaves me with continually questioning how useful really is her discussion on fearlessness. I also question the reliance on any tradition (e.g., Buddhism, which highly values “fearlessness”) by Wheatley or other authors, touting the great virtue of fearlessness when one could argue the person pursuing fearlessness is not able to identify “fear” (or ‘fear’ as I add to the complexity of knowledge required). She does ask, “... what is fearlessness? It’s not being free of fear, for fear is part of our human journey” (Wheatley, 2008, p. 1). Here you can see the necessary dependency of fear and fearlessness as a dialectical relationship, yet, without fear being defined per se, and assume to be meaningful and true as “part of our human journey” (i.e., natural), she glosses over a huge epistemic problem in discussions about FME. She does not make clear what is natural fear or normal fear or pathological fear, etc. A number of authors do this in their discourse, but they all confuse and conflate to make natural and normal one and the same thing. This is highly problematic and distortive because of the evidence that is shown from many disciplines that there is a constructed fear born in the cradle of a “culture of fear” context, and thus, to assume fear is simply natural or normal is to exclude the context of our lived reality. I have referred to this problem of reductionism (once again) to a hegemonic psychologization of fear (or FME). Writers, like Wheatley, disavow and/or ignore the historical, cultural, social and political complexity of fear and how humans are impacted by it and are participant co-creators of constructed fear (i.e., cultural modified fear, as analogous to genetically modified organisms).
Colonial Western (Dominant) Worldview Bias
Although there are other things I could critique, including how Wheatley later uses “true fearlessness” without mentioning its dialectical partner “false fearlessness” and why there would be such a distinction required in the first place. I’ll end with one last point of great disturbance—and, that is her highly Western modernist (colonialist) perspective on the topic, even if she refers to authority figures in spiritual teachings from the Eastern world (e.g., Hafiz, Zen). It comes across that she has not at all integrated Indigenous traditions around the world (especially, from her own country of origin, America) to offer wisdom on FME—an Indigenous-based critique made recently of the “Dominant worldview” in relation to fear, courage and fearlessness (Four Arrows, 2016; see chapter two).
This flaw shines brightly in the first paragraph of her essay when she talks of “our own families, perhaps going back several generations” as guides and inspiration because they “have been fearless.” She mentions, “They may have been immigrants who bravely left the safety of home, veterans who courageously fought in wars, families who endured economic hardships, war, persecution, slavery, oppression, dislocation. We all carry within us this lineage of fearlessness” (Wheatley, 2008, p. 1). I do not here a direct acknowledgement of the people who have lived relatively sustainably with Nature for 99% of human history and what they went through, and how they are the more reliable source (than the Dominant worldview) to understand fearlessness—and pass it on.
Bottomline, one finds no nuanced understanding of fear and fearlessness in Wheatley’s essay and teachings and worse it has no multiperspectival approach to understanding these notions. She makes no effort to question the “reality” and definitions she vaguely offers. The lack of such critical awareness is not what one would expect from a person who is into Buddhism. So, the message to me is that if someone as top-notch as Wheatley is so flawed in her presentation on this topic, what are we getting fed as a public by the rest of the FME teachers out there in the world?
Time to develop our own critical awareness of everyone who teaches some form of FME, even if they don’t believe they are doing so. Fact is, we most all are teaching by modeling, if not more directly through instruction. FME is a socialization phenomena, and a critical one to do well. We have a lot of work to raise the consciousness about the Fear Problem, of which part of it is how we talk, write, and teach about fear itself.
Fisher, R. M. (2006). Invoking ‘Fear’ Studies. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 22(4), 39-71.
Fisher, R. M. (2010). The world’s fearlessness teachings; A critical integral approach to fear management/education for the 21st century. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
Fisher, R. M. (2016). Invoking fearanalysis: A new methodology applied to wicked problems and paradigm shifts in the Anthropocene. A CSIIE Yellow Paper, DIFS-15. Carbondale, IL: Center for Spiritual Inquiry & Integral Education.
Fisher, R. M. (2016a). 80% of fear discourse focuses on 25% of fear reality. Retrieved from http://fearlessnessmovement.ning.com/blog/80-of-fear-discourse-focuses-on-25-of-fear-reality
Fisher, R. M. (2016b). Problem of branding “fearlessness” in education and leadership. Technical Paper No. 59. Carbondale, IL: In Search of Fearlessness Research Institute.
Fisher, R. M., and Subba, D. (2016). Philosophy of fearism: A first East-West dialogue. Australia: Xlibris.
Four Arrows (2016). Point of departure: Returning to a more authentic worldview for education and survival. Charlotte, NC: Information Age Publishing.
Kleiner, A. (with Wheatley, M. J.) (2007). Fearlessness: The last organizational change strategy. Retrieved from http://www.strategy-business.com/li/leadingideas/li00044?pg=1
Wheatley, M. (2008). Can I be fearless? Retrieved from margaretwheatley.com/wp-content/.../Wheatley-CanIBeFearless.pdf
 The importance of this term cannot be overemphasized. It is based on the premise that the only reason any human being wants to know about fear is because they want to manage it more effectively. That has a lot more theoretical basis, which is beyond the scope of this article (see Fisher, 2010). Suffice it to say, I am the only writer using this term. Note, many writers do not explicitly admit their writing is about fear management, never mind fear education and thus, should be critiqued as such.
 I basically mean a postmodern, postcolonial, and post-postmodern (integral) upgrade of perspective (see Fisher, 2010).
 Excerpt from “A Call to Fearlessness for Gentle Leaders,” from her address at the Shambhala Institute Core Program in June 2006. Published in Fieldnotes, September/October 2006 by The Shambhala Institute for Authentic Leadership, http://www.shambhalainstitute.org/contat/html.
 See Kleiner interview with Wheatley (Kleiner, 2007).
 I have also been critical over the years of Parker Palmer’s writing on FME, and in the quote he goes from talking about fear (itself) generically as “so fundamental to the human condition that all the great spiritual traditions originate in an effort to overcome its effects on our lives” (cited in Wheatley, 2008, p. 1), but then he goes on to talk about fears (p. 2)—a contagious problem in FME discourses that reduce the nature and role of fear to fears as if this is no categorical problem at all. Again, it is not the purpose of this article to go into the technical details of this reductionism other than to mention it as one other form of an epistemic flaw in the discourse of Palmer, Wheatley and 95% of writers on FME.
 Following the principles of integral developmental theory (a la Ken Wilber), one would have to make distinctions about what is a state experience of fearless (and/or fearlessness) and what is a stage of attained development of fearless. The former being an ephemeral experience, the latter being a relatively stable identity and experiential reality (also called nondual stage). I won’t go into the technicalities of this and one is best to turn to study of integral developmental theory to better understand the basis for Wilber being clear about making this distinction which fits reality best (or, at least, I find it a very good theory of explanation).
 This is a large topic, I recommend Fisher (2006) for an overview of the culture of fear context/problem.
 Similarly, in how she approaches “fear” without defining it adequately, or pointing out the problems in defining it from multiple perspectives and contexts, she makes clumsy errors equally with defining bravery, courage and bravado—as she contrasts these (rightfully) with fearlessness. Again, see Fisher (2010) for an integral theory of fear management systems, whereby, I identify an evolutionary and developmental deep structural model that distinguishes six core systems that counteract “fear” (and ‘fear’): (1) no fear, (2) bravery (and bravado), (3) courage(ousness), (4) fear-less, (5) fearlessness, and (6) fearless.