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Is It Better to Be Feared or to Be Respected As a Leader?

clipboard-with-pencil_16x16 It is an old question and many people throughout history have tried to answer it. One of them was Machiavelli, he talked about it in his famous book, The Prince. There he gives an insightful analysis of the subject and he comes to the conclusion that it is better for a leader to be feared than to be respected.

As a psychologist I come across both, the feared and the respected leaders. Both can be very effective in realizing the goals of their organizations. Therefore I have learned not to judge either of them. To me the respected one is not by default a better leader than the feared one. A high degree of respect is not a guarantee for a leaders’ success. On the other hand fear can be a very powerful force to move people forward to a specific goal. Personally however I prefer to follow a leader that I can respect instead of leader I have to fear.

Although both types of leaders can create success, they create very distinctive journeys for themselves.

In most cases that I have seen, leaders are feared because they have used for too long what I call the “lower strategies”. They misled others, they lied, claimed credit for other peoples work, gave a twist to reality, intimidated others, etc. By doing this they made progress in their career and brought financial success to their organization or to the department that they led. Some are rude and direct others are charming and almost delicate in their ways but they all apply the lower strategies. Through the years they lose the respect of others and they get increasingly isolated. Often it’s out of frustration or anger that people make jokes about them and that there is much gossip behind their backs, but the only one who doesn’t really know what’s going on, is the leader itself. Because they manage by fear, people when they are smart, start to avoid them and therefore these leaders don’t receive honest feedback anymore. Followers who are scared of consequences will tell their leader only what they know he or she wants to hear. It is as if these leaders create their own vicious circle. Because they used the lower strategies, they lost the respect of others, they get isolated and through the years they grow this army of personal adversaries and even enemies. I have observed several times that when these leaders “stumble” in their career, because of bad luck or because they took a wrong business decision, the “army” they raised (or at least some prominent members of it) will be present to make things much worse. When these leaders then see this deep anger and disappointment they have created, some of them ask themselves: “What have I become?” And when they are honest to themselves, they don’t like the answer. They realize that they might have won many battles, but when they see how isolated and disrespected they have become, they realize that they haven’t won the war.

To win a war is normally not something you do alone. When I observed the respected leaders I realized that almost all of them build up allies through the years. Probably the strongest and most effective way of building allies is by investing in the growth of others. They invest by sharing their insights and experiences and this implies that these leaders are not afraid of followers that could one day become even stronger and better than themselves. By investing in others, leaders get respect in return. If however they invest naively in just anybody, they will be exploited. If on the other hand they invest in an opportunistic way, for the sake of having allies, they will not earn respect. But if they are authentic as leaders and invest with the right intentions, they will not only earn the respect but also the loyalty of their followers. When they then “stumble” in their career, they receive support and protection.
When I work with both type of leaders I realized that in most of the cases they didn’t made a conscious choice about the leader they wanted to be. They initially tried (or copied) a certain behavior and it brought them forward. Through the years they continued that path and “it felt right”. I often tell young leaders that they have a choice of using the “lower” or the “higher strategies” and that both can create financial success. At the end however it makes a significant difference in what kind of person you will become and if your legacy as a leader will be continued or if it will die the day you lose your power.

You find more on this topic in the blog post The Ego Evolution of Leaders

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