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Is it Better to be Feared or Loved in Leadership?

About 500 years ago, Machiavelli wrote the book The Prince, and in it he asked a classic question: as a leader, would you rather be feared or loved? He said, It's both, but if he had to choose, he would choose fear.

Now, why would he do that? Well for most of human history, the nature of work was pretty repetitive and pretty simple. Sure, there was always someone doing the architecture, the engineering or the design, but that was a much smaller part of the population than it is today. Hardly anybody was involved in things that were complex or required creativity. We’ve learned that when work is simple and repetitive, external motivators like fear of punishment work really well. But today the nature of work has changed. In today's world, work is increasingly complex, and requires creativity and innovation.

When work is like that, we now know that external motivators like the fear of punishment not only are ineffective, they actually hurt the quality of the work. You get a worse work product when you're using things like fear as a motivator to get things done. So in today's world, he'd come to a very different conclusion. If Machiavelli was asked today, “Would you rather be feared or loved?” He'd still probably say both, but he would say lead with love.

This idea became really clear to me just a few weeks ago when I was talking to a client. We're talking about a major project that had a serious deadline that had to be hit. We HAD to get this thing finished on time, and we kept using this word, “DEADLINE.”

I thought, “deadline,” what an interesting word. That's one of those words where we've taken two English words and slammed them together to make a new word. And when we do that in the English language, there's usually a fun story behind it, so I went and looked it up. Turns out the deadline is exactly what it sounds like; it's a line at which you become dead. But what was its context? A long time ago, when we used to take prisoners out of prisons to do work, we would put them in the work zone. And then we'd draw a line or sometimes put a circle around them and we'd say, If you cross this line, we will shoot you. It was literally the DEAD-line.

Are we comfortable with a metaphor where our workers are prisoners and the consequence of failure is death? I think this is a terrible metaphor for us to be using. In the Machiavellian sense, this is motivation purely by fear– and yet we still use it to try to motivate creative work. Now to be clear, I’m not anti-deadline altogether. Deadlines have a time and a place in every kind of work, but we treat them like a universal solution to motivate our teams, when they should be used circumstantially.

So the question becomes how do you lead with love? You have to have some strength to your character, to your decision making, to you, to the authority that you carry. Your organization needs to be organized. But you also have to bring warmth, empathy, compassion, curiosity, and the ability to listen. You can feel warmth; you can see it in people's faces, in micro-expressions, in the words they use and how they greet each other. We call this psychological safety, and we know that the best teams operate from a place that is psychologically safe. Simply put, you want to create a safe place to do dangerous things.

So if you were asked the question today, would you rather be feared or loved as a leader? The answer is still both, but always lead with love.

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