Should Leaders be Loved or Feared?

Niccolo Machiavelli 1

Niccolo Machiavelli

Niccolo Machiavelli hedged his bets when answering this question and said “one should wish to be both”. But he went on to say “because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved”.

Recent research in HBR July-August 2013 by Cuddy, Kohut and Neffinger confirms that Machiavelli was at least partially right. To exert influence, we must balance competence with warmth.

Apparently our emotional and behavioural reactions to people are assessed by asking these critical questions in sequence:

  1. What are this leader’s intentions towards me?
  2. Is this leader capable of carrying out those intentions?

There is growing evidence that it’s best for the leader to start with warmth – a nod, a smile, an open gesture, acknowledging what others are saying – all work wonders. These behaviours help demonstrate that they’re interested in what the other person says and that they are hearing them. These behaviours help build a trusted relationship.

If you put strength first, you’ll probably get compliance, but you won’t get real commitment.

The Neuroscience bit!

Two hormones feature strongly in studies on strength and power – testosterone and cortisol. Testosterone is associated with assertiveness, reduced fear and willingness to compete and take risks. Cortisol is associated with stress and stress reactivity.

Leaders on Harvard programmes reported less stress and anxiety than the general population and their cortisol levels backed this up – they were low. Why might this be? They had a heightened sense of control. Effective leaders are thought to be high testosterone and low cortisol.

Remarkably, adopting power poses (open, expansive etc) for just two minutes helps create the right hormone levels to be relaxed and confident.

For related insights into the importance of credibility, rapport and trust see

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