Love or Fear: The Foundation of Your Leadership

This past Saturday afternoon my good friend, Robi, and I were hanging out in her back yard by the pool.  As we solved life’s problems over a margarita, we began discussing the similarities and differences in the way we lead our teams.  Robi is a small business owner who, with her business partner, has grown their company to 3 locations in recent years.  We decided that over the years, with both experience and individual self-awareness, we have adapted our approaches and probably come to be more similar than different.

I started to change my leadership style significantly was about 6 years ago.  It was at that time, I took a 360 assessment and was given the feedback that my relationship skills were commendable, but I needed to up my game to ensure that I was tending to the task side of the business.  This would consist of less harmony and more accountability.  It meant using more logic and less feeling.  It meant being more strategic and less spontaneous.  I knew that I had been on the high side of relationship and “loved” for years.  However, the “discipline” side was important if I wanted to continue to scale the business.  My “competing commitment” was that I didn’t want to be feared or too over-the-top assertive – good relationships were important to me.  It wasn’t until I understood that inflicting fear was different than showing  strength and competence.  Strength, discipline and competence was what my stakeholders needed from me to get to the next level and actually makes my relationships stronger.  The casual discussion with Robi and my own reflections prompted me to remember the research around leaders being beloved vs. leaders being respected.

Is It Better To Be Loved or Feared?
Machiavelli took on this question centuries ago in the course of writing The Prince, famously advising at one point that “Since it is hard to find these traits in one person, it is better to be feared than loved”. Recent behavioral science is weighing in with research showing that Machiavelli was partly right. When we judge others – especially our leaders – we first look at two characteristics: how lovable they are (warmth and trustworthiness) and how fearsome they are (strength and competence).  Why are these traits so important?  Because they answer two crucial questions: “What are this person’s intentions toward me?” and “Is he or she capable of acting on those intentions?”

Most of us work hard to establish our competence.  We feel compelled to demonstrate that we are strong and up to the job.  Recently, within an established team that I was working with, a new executive team member was added.  She was smart, creative, and had a lot of experience in a larger organization.  She was quick to establish her competence with her team by having more of a “command and control” type leadership approach.  She felt that showing the “soft or warm” side of her personality would indicate a weakness.  What happened?  People on the team, who were high performers, began a mass exodus.  The problem with her approach was that she did not establish her warmth or trustworthiness with the team.  This resulted in team members feeling disconnected and disengaged.

The simple solution to this situation would have been for this executive to set the foundation of the relationship with trustworthiness and then establish her competence.   Establishing competence without trustworthiness will lead people to feel unsure about the connection they have and will resist following the lead.  At the other extreme, if a leader only establish warmth and trustworthiness with others, but doesn’t show that are disciplined and competent, people will like you, but not necessarily respect what you have to say. You have to have both to be able to influence people effectively!

The research shows that warmth and strength are definitely not mutually exclusive and can actually be mutually reinforcing.  Feeling a sense of personal strength helps us to be more open, less defensive, and less threatening, especially in stressful situations.  When we feel confident and calm, we project more authenticity and warmth.  You have probably had those times where you felt both warm (trustworthy) and strong (competent) – it feels great!  It is definitely when you can say that you are “on” and hitting all cylinders!

So, today I have been writing about warmth/love and strength/competence through the lens of individual leaders.  However, these concepts can be extended and applied to teams and organizations.  How trustworthy is your leadership team or organization? How competent is that same team or organization judged to be?  Remember, you need both.  Lead with the trustworthiness of your intentions and finish with establishing that you are capable of acting on those intentions.

I’m including the website link to the book “The Human Brand” that will give you many more rich details than this blog can hold…you can watch some of the videos, take the loyalty test, etc.  This book recently won the International Business Book Award so it is absolutely worth checking out! You can find more information at