The Role of Fear in Leadership: Is it Better to be Feared or Loved as a Leader?

Is it better to be feared or loved as a leader?

It’s an age-old question that seems to keep cropping up.  Authoritative writers talk about how leaders need to be open, transparent, empathetic, and willing to listen.  Yet like the Humble Leader Paradox, if that’s the way you act, great, but what’s to keep people from just doing whatever they want?  What is the role of fear in leadership?  Do we have to choose between fear and love?

Whether you seek to be loved or feared, each approach has limitations that can inhibit your effectiveness.  But I think there is something more worthy to shoot for that blends the best of both worlds.

The Role of Fear in Leadership

Beware: The Chief is Taking the Brief

This really happened.

It was the daily 5 PM Battle Update Brief (the “BUB” in the inevitable Army acronym) at a major headquarters where I once worked.  The point of the BUB was to synchronize large scale actions and solve short-fused problems.  We covered everything from intelligence to troop movements, to logistics.  It was imperative that briefers knew what was going on.

The Chief, who typically presided, was experienced, incisive, and notoriously hard to brief.  He always asked tough questions, and he could sense immediately if someone were offering him a load of horse manure.  People were afraid to brief him.  The fear was palpable as BUB time approached.

One day a captain from logistics became a target.  He didn’t have adequate answers to the Chief’s first few questions.  When more queries drew blanks, the Chief’s face turned red and he leaned forward in his chair.  We all braced for impact.

The Chief never yelled, but in his intense, gravelly voice, he made it abundantly clear that the young captain should always come well-prepared for this meeting, and noted how everyone in the room was depending on him to…

…In the middle of the diatribe, the young captain’s eyes rolled up in the back of his head, and he fell over backwards, passed out.

Word of how the Chief could “knock out a captain” at close range with just a few sharply worded questions got around quickly.  The Chief did nothing to dispell the story.

Everyone who briefed after that doubled their preparation, but also fretted more when it came time to brief.

(again, true story; epilogue is below…)

To Be Feared

The Chief was our leader.  Did we love this man?  No, especially not in those moments.  He could be very tough.

Did we fear him?  I’d have to say yes, at times.  Did that make him an effective leader?  I’ll get to that in a minute, but first, let’s look at the impact of fear and love as leadership tools.

Machiavelli would have us believe that if it came down to a choice between being feared or loved, fear is the better option.

 “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.”
– Machiavelli

There is no doubt that fear can be a great motivator.  Man has always been genetically hard-wired to survive, and fear is one mechanism that helps make that possible.  When threats loom, fear counsels fight or flight.  Avoiding danger is a good way live another day.

A leader who rules through fear has found a means to threaten some aspect of our wellbeing.  He has access to coercive powers, whether through job sanctions and penalties, humiliation, or changes in status.  However they are delivered, credible threats still elicit the fear response.

Most often, that response is avoidance.  We avoid taking risk, avoid accepting responsibility, we try to keep a low profile and not attract attention.  It’s an environment that stifles initiative.

As this goes on, we miss opportunities to innovate or try new things.  Who would be willing to stick their neck out if failure means getting it cut off.

The Role of Fear in LeadershipAnd as we see co-workers punished for failure, sure, we may work hard to prevent the same thing from happening to us.  But the bigger problem is that the fear environment forces us to focus on our own survival to the exclusion of all else.

To that end, fear can engender internal conflict and erode trust.  If we are all fighting for the same scraps and your gain is my loss, why should I help?

Ruling through fear can ultimately lead to brain drain on your team.  Without an opportunity to meaningfully contribute, a lot of your talent may exercise the “flight” response and find a better place to work.

Leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who have nothing to say. – Andy Stanley Click To Tweet

In the end, I think Eisenhower had a better grasp of leadership.

You do not lead by hitting people over the head – that’s assault, not leadership. – Eisenhower Click To Tweet

Fear may get some things done, but at what cost?

To Be Loved

So if seeking to be feared is not the answer, is seeking to be loved any better?

Of course it’s natural to want to be liked.  Acceptance into a group is another primal instinct rooted in survival.  There is power and safety in numbers.

The problem is that to seek acceptance into a group is to place yourself under the rules of that group.  In seeking love, you risk becoming a “people pleaser” ready and willing to do what it takes to make others happy.

There’s good here, if that causes you to do things that benefit others, help them get the job done, or become better at what they do.

The problem is that approaching leadership this way now you become the one who is avoiding.

You avoid giving the candid feedback that someone needs to hear.  You avoid making hard or unpopular decisions because someone may be disappointed.  You avoid looking a person in the eye and telling them that they can do better.

Leading Your FriendsThat’s why leading your peers can be so difficult.  When someone in a group suddenly has to become the leader, the desire to please teammates can outweigh the need to get the job done.

And checking back in with today’s muse, Machivelli points out that love is not always sufficient to keep people from doing whatever they want.

“Men shrink less from offending one who inspires love
than one who inspires fear.”
– Machiavelli

They may love you, but it won’t necessarily prevent them from using you like a door mat.

To Be Respected

Love is the right idea, but I think the construct is backwards.  It’s not about them loving you.  It’s about you loving them.  And to me, respect is a critical component of love.

Love is an empty word without respect. – Nikhil Saluja Click To Tweet

To be effective, seek instead the respect of your teammates.  For the leader, respect is the balancing point between fear and love.

Earning the respect of the team means being open, fair, willing to listen, to admit error, to share in difficulty, to act to protect the team’s well-being.  Respect requires honesty, extending trust, helping others grow, and even underwriting honest mistakes.  Respect includes passing along the credit and absorbing the blame for the team.

But earning respect also means enforcing the team’s cornerstone values, organizational policies, and insisting on ethical behavior.  It means being willing to provide honest feedback, to have difficult conversations, and to ensuring fair play across the team.

As the leader, you have to make clear to your team where the lines are, and they have to know that there will be consequences if they cross them.

The threat must be credible or it will be ignored.

The Role of Fear – The Takeaway

Is there a place for fear in a leadership role?  Absolutely yes.  For certain behaviors there ought to be meaningful consequences that cause people who transgress to worry.  It’s called accountability, and it’s something we expect our leaders to establish.

Indeed, it would be hard to respect a leader who did not hold team members accountable.  Respect is integral to love; but to earn that respect, sometimes you have to be willing to do the things that people fear.

Epilogue:  What happened to that captain who passed out during his brief?  Well, he was definitely feeling the stress that day.  But it didn’t help that he had also run 10 miles at lunch, and that he locked his knees as he stood during the briefing.

If you stand that way for too long, circulation slows; you can become light-headed.  The reality was that he had simply fainted, but the effect, of course, was dramatic.

It was clear to all in the room that day that the Chief knew the captain was capable of doing a better job, and that the rest of the team depended on his expertise.  The Chief was reinforcing a cultural ethic that was essential for all of us to follow.  He used fear to ensure everyone was as prepared as possible so that as a team we could make smart decisions.

The following day the captain was there again to brief.  As he stepped to the podium, he was wearing a flak jacket and a Kevlar helmet even though we were inside a building.   He nervously smiled and said that based on his experience from last time, he wanted to be as prepared as possible the next time he briefed.

Everybody in the room laughed at his joke, even the Chief.  Some of the tension in the room dissipated.  And when he began to speak, it was clear that he was indeed very well prepared.

Lead on!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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