The ability to generate an emotional response is the key to any leader’s success. Moses got his people’s undivided attention by putting the fear of a wrathful God in them. Winston Churchill appealed to the English sense of pride to rally spirits in the early, dark days of World War II. Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired the affection of millions by his own example of nonviolent leadership in the cause of civil rights for African-Americans. And business leaders, too, must inspire emotions in order to persuade people to give their best.
But does the nature of the emotion matter? The current wisdom holds that command and control is dead; employees must be empowered to act on their own. They are team members, not subordinates. Even more, they are “family,” working together in a “community.” The language of love —as in, “I love my people” — has become the acceptable, even preferred managerial idiom, “a new kind of patois spoken almost exclusively by chief executives,” as Lucy Kellaway recently wrote in the Financial Times. Recent books confirm this, touting the effectiveness of quiet leaders and modest chiefs.
And yet, it’s hard to escape the feeling that fear is still an important reality in the world of work. Not just fear of layoffs, which are often a matter of cyclical downturns and global disruptions. The issue is good old-fashioned fear of the boss, driven by the knowledge that one’s performance will be judged by the highest standards and that failure to meet a high level of achievement will not be tolerated for long. Isn’t such fear necessary, even healthy, in today’s ultracompetitive world?
Niccolo Machiavelli took on these questions centuries ago in the course of writing The Prince, famously advising at one point that “It is better to be feared than loved.” SMR asked three experts to reconsider that notion in the context of modern management and leadership and, perhaps unsurprisingly, received three very different responses. But one common theme emerges: People want clear rules, honesty and mutual trust. When they sense that they are being treated fairly, their feelings of fear and love become secondary to their focus on the bigger picture — be it on the battlefield, on the playing field or in the executive suite. But when they feel that decisions are arbitrary, they will eventually fail to respond to either emotion.
Trust Trumps Love and Fear
Although Machiavelli advised the prince that “It is better to be feared than loved,” his views on leadership are more complex than that. Modern readers who focus on that statement have trouble separating Machiavelli’s analysis from his values. What does he mean by “better”? Does he mean “more desirable” or “more effective”? Is he giving the kind of evil advice that Hitler and Stalin followed, or is he merely describing what works?
The answer is that Machiavelli was an amoral consultant in writing The Prince but a social scientist with republican values in The Discourses, his analysis of Livy’s history of Rome. The latter book provides lessons for our own times. In it, Machiavelli’s message is that effective leadership behavior depends on the leader’s nature and the challenges he faces, the fit between personality and context. Thus neither fear nor love is absolutely better in any given situation or for any particular leader.
In The Discourses, Machiavelli describes two Roman generals. One was considerate and kind; he treated his men as equals. The other was harsh and demanding; he allowed no bending of the rules and had his son publicly executed for corruption. Both were equally effective because, Machiavelli believes, they were true to their natures, consistent and virtuous, and the troops knew what to expect from them. After describing various generals, their personalities and the challenges they faced, Machiavelli concludes that “it does not matter much in what way a general behaves, provided his efficiency be so great that it flavors the way in which he behaves, whether it be this way or that. For as we have said, in both there are defects and dangers unless they be corrected by outstanding virtue.”
What are the implications of Machiavelli’s views for business leadership today? The key again is the importance of personality and context. For example, Steve Case was an inspirational leader of America Online Co. But he lacked the personality and qualities to lead an organization with very different needs and opportunities, Time-Warner Inc.
In a paternalistic organization, where employees feel secure, even a tough leader can be loved because he is experienced as a protective father. But in times of economic turbulence, the leader can no longer guarantee employment and may have to demand change from resistant employees. Yet even in those circumstances, the wise business executive seeks to avoid creating fearful employees who shy away from taking responsibility. As W. Edwards Deming preached, to create quality, drive out fear. The leader should be clear about his values so that people know what to expect from him. He should not be afraid to communicate hard truths or take responsibility for quality products and services. Otherwise a business becomes the kind of inefficient bureaucracy in which employees, when faced with a challenge, delegate upward.
The challenge for top executives in turbulent times is to create a culture of trust. Virtuous ethical behavior can dissolve distrust but it won’t establish trust. People expect their leaders to follow the rules and won’t give them extra credit, in the form of trust, for doing so. They will only trust someone who shows that he trusts them. To create a culture of trust, leaders must invite employees with relevant knowledge to participate in decision making; in addition, they should fully communicate the information and logic behind their decisions. Employees may still fear losing their jobs if the company’s products don’t sell or new processes make certain functions obsolete. But if the organization is built on trust, they won’t have to fear that changes are the result of the capricious whims of an uncaring leader.
People follow leaders for different reasons, some conscious and some unconscious (such as the wish for a protective parental figure). Emotions like love and fear, trust and mistrust, can play a significant role in whether a leader gains followers. Is there a best type of leader? My favorite was described by Lao Tzu, 2,500 years ago: The best leader is the one who helps people so that eventually they don’t need him. Next comes the leader who is loved and admired. Next, one who is feared. And worst of all is the one who lets people push him around —who, in effect, is no leader at all.
The Power of Relationships
Fear can motivate people in the short run, whether in the form of outright intimidation or more subtle Machiavellian strategies of divide and conquer. But this approach tends to backfire as people find ways to get back at their managers and hide information to protect themselves from punishment.
Positive relationships are more powerful than fear for achieving consistently high performance. That is particularly true in settings that require high levels of coordination across boundaries. Effective coordination requires people to step outside the safety of their occupational communities or functional silos to communicate with those who have very different expertise and knowledge. Such barriers are not easily surmounted. Indeed, fear tends to make people revert to the safety of the known and to stay within the confines of the familiar. Managing performance through a divide-and-conquer strategy will set at odds the very people who must coordinate with each other.
For several reasons, however, many managers implicitly choose fear as a tool for controlling employees. Managers are trained to undervalue the role of relationships (a seemingly soft or feminine factor) in achieving results. They often find it effective, at least in the short run, to control others by pitting them against each other, suggesting a reason not to strengthen relationships among front-line employees. And pressures from Wall Street can tempt executives to use fear in hope of realizing quick results, rather than positive relationships for results that can be sustained.
Southwest Airlines Co. is an exception, emphasizing the value of positive relationships and seeking to decrease fear. For example, the company has an explicit policy of avoiding layoffs and has maintained the financial reserves needed to make that policy a reality for the entire 32 years of its existence. As former CEO Herb Kelleher noted, “Nothing kills your culture like layoffs. Nobody has ever been furloughed at Southwest. ... [That] breeds a sense of security [and] trust.”
What Southwest practices can be called “relational coordination.” The elements that make this approach work include shared goals, shared knowledge, mutual respect, frequent communication and a focus on problem solving rather than finger pointing. In a study of airlines, high levels of relational coordination across 12 functional groups resulted in decreased passenger complaints, improved on-time performance, improved baggage handling, faster aircraft servicing at the gate and higher employee productivity. A study of hospitals yielded similarly impressive results: A high degree of relational coordination translated into increased patient satisfaction, improved clinical outcomes and shorter hospital stays. And those findings are consistent with research on the power of positive connections for individuals’ health, well-being and longevity.
How can managers implement relational coordination? One important step is to shed misconceptions about what makes relationships work. The popular perception about Southwest, for example, is that its performance is a result of a culture of fun, craziness and a charismatic leader. But Southwest has a highly disciplined management approach to building relationships that is based on investments in organizational practices. People do not forge relationships characterized by shared goals, shared knowledge and mutual respect simply by having fun together. Southwest’s organizational practices encourage people to think of themselves as an integral part of a whole and to respect the role played by every other part.
Consider performance management systems. Those that reward and punish people primarily for individual or functional outcomes can easily undermine relational coordination and broader organizational outcomes. The role of coaching is also central: Research shows the value of having supervisors with small spans of control and close working relationships with front-line employees. A third practice for improving relational coordination is the creation of boundary-spanning roles; these should be staffed by people who can create a shared understanding of what each party needs to do, particularly at customer-sensitive points.
These are only a few of the ways in which companies that understand the importance of relationships design practices to support them. While Machiavelli’s prince may have found it effective to rule the Florentine Republic through fear, today’s executives would do better to heed the lessons of Southwest’s success. Fear breeds insecurity and dysfunction; positive relationships lead to team-work and better performance.
Fear Is More Reliable
Machiavelli never actually asks leaders to choose between leading by love or leading by fear. He knew that in real life people rarely have to make that black-and-white choice. So he puts it differently, making it a matter of emphasis: Is it better to lead more by one or the other? His answer surprises most people who haven’t studied him carefully. He says the best solution is to walk the dividing line between the two, using fear and love in more or less equal measure.
But Machiavelli also knew that the best solution in theory is virtually impossible to bring about in practice. Very few people are capable of walking that line, and for the most part it’s best to emphasize one way over the over. Machiavelli is clear about which is likely to be more effective. Drawing on his study of ancient Rome, he concedes that there are many examples of men who led primarily by love, and some were great leaders. But those were rare birds. Love is fickle, and followers are likely to turn on their leader at the first sign that things are going badly. Fear is much more reliable because it is “maintained by dread of punishment, which never fails.”
The person who leads primarily by love makes himself the central focus of the entire enterprise. If things go well, it is his triumph, but if things go badly — and in Machiavelli’s view, it’s only a matter of time before things go badly — it will be his fault. But if the leader enforces a system, then the system is ultimately responsible for the good and the bad. People may fear what will happen to them if they break the rules, but they are less likely to hold the leader responsible for their fate.
That’s not to say that appealing to people’s affections is always a mistake, as an example concerning George Washington shows. Late in the Revolutionary War, some members of the army, having received no salaries for many months and having been ignored by the politicians in the Continental Congress, were threatening to rebel. Washington was sent to calm the situation, and he addressed the men at Newburgh, New York. At a certain point, he started to read a letter from a member of Congress. But the penmanship was poor, and Washington, whose eyesight was failing but whose vanity prevented him from donning spectacles, couldn’t make it out. So he reached for his eyeglasses, which produced a surprised murmur from the soldiers. “Gentlemen,” he sadly remarked, “you must pardon me. I have grown gray in your service and now find myself growing blind.” Having revealed his own frailty, he carried the day with the again-loyal troops.
This example suggests that love may work better for older leaders. Subordinates may well go the extra mile for “the old man” (or “lady”), but they may be reluctant to do the same for “the kid.”And even with older leaders, love alone is not sufficient. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher were beloved by many, but they also demonstrated toughness under fire early in their terms as national leaders — Reagan when he dismissed the striking air-traffic controllers, Thatcher in taking on the coal miners.
Can toughness under fire be developed in people? The answer is a qualified yes. A couple of years ago, a young man who had graduated from the U.S. Marine Corps Officer Candidate School in Quantico, Virginia, commented on what he liked best about it. “Oh, that’s an easy one. After the first few days it was obvious that there were some guys who just weren’t up to it. And you know, in school or even in some tough athletic programs, the coach or the teacher would have gone up to them and said,‘Come on buddy, you can do it, don’t give up, suck it up,’ and all that. But here the drill sergeants went to them right away and said,‘Look buddy, you’re not gonna make it, it’s not for you, get out of here and try something else.’ ”
The Marines know that everyone around them has been held to high standards and that those standards are enforced by fear. Isn’t that what a leader wants from an organization, people working to the highest standards? Running a serious enterprise today is, in fact, tantamount to commanding military forces, and the Officer Candidate School is a model for how to train leaders. That explains why, on any given day, people from business schools and leadership-training programs from all over the world are visiting the school, watching how the Marines do it.
Of course, leaders also want people to admire them, and they hope to inspire them by words and deeds. Machiavelli couldn’t agree more with those sentiments. But he doesn’t want people to kid themselves. His advice: Love is great. Use it, by all means. But don’t rely on it. The effective leader will find fear to be a more reliable tool.