Leadership and the Fear Factor

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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.


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