Machiavelli posed the question several centuries ago: is it better to be loved or feared?
Leaders have debated the issue ever since. The Florentine politician himself came down on the side of fear. It is very difficult, he said, to be a leader who is both loved and feared, so if you have to choose one, fear is the safer choice.
I don’t believe that fear-based leadership is successful long-term. On the other hand, I find that a need to be liked—or loved—can impede a leader’s decision-making. In fact, some research indicates that the most highly-successful leaders don’t invest much energy in being liked. These individuals can withstand criticism and even bold resistance if they believe they are making the right decision.
In a January 2017 article in Entrepreneur, Do Effective Leaders Use Fear or Love in the Workplace?, writers Thuy and Milo Sindell write that leaders who are perceived as angry seem more powerful, and can create more “attentive and cooperative” employees. On the other end of the spectrum, the writers say, leaders who are loved by employees “often focus on being caring and having a mutual connection to employees, rather than just being a leader.” That well-liked leader can generate trust and connection. However, there’s another side to that love, as such leaders may garner less respect. “Employees think they can get away with slacking off, ignoring rules and doing whatever they want,” the authors explain.
And yet, the authors find, being feared isn’t necessarily the best choice. It also comes at a cost for both the leader and those they manage. Leaders who command fear lack “referent power…the ability of a leader to influence followers by making them identify and sympathize with them. This power is critical to earning trust and commitment from employees.”
Put me down in the camp of believing that a leader shouldn’t worry too much about being liked, but should also work to convey warmth. I have coached leaders who command respect but need to show more warmth and empathy in order to coax the best work from their teams, and also leaders who need to stand more firmly in their own opinions and decisions, even if it means that they are risking moments of being liked. Like so many things in life, the solution seems to come down to balance and moderation. Don’t try to be liked, but do show empathy, as well as strength.
Learn more at the Entrepreneur story Do Effective Leaders Use Fear or Love in the Workplace?