Jayashantha Jayawardhana elucidates why leaders should strive to be loved and feared

In a fascinating book co-authored by Amy Wallace and Ed Catmull titled ‘Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration,’ the latter – who is the President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios Catmull – talks about the jitters and sense of apprehension workers experienced over the then impending sale of Pixar by the late Steve Jobs to Disney.

Even though these employees didn’t really voice their concerns, Jobs was quick to address their fears and uncertainty about the Walt Disney Company and its CEO Bob Iger (who had succeeded Michael Eisner by the time of the sale). He calmed their fears with a few words about Iger: “He is a good man.”

Coming from a tough guy like Jobs, Catmull must have found it reassuring. The rest of the multibillion-dollar success story is history, as we know.

My point is that we all like good people. It seems that even those who are notoriously tough like Jobs also like good people. And we all like working for good leaders. But ‘good’ is a relative concept; it is an intangible and qualitative term. In the broader context of human relationships, whom do we consider as being ‘good’?

Essentially, the term personifies people who project love, warmth, compassion, generosity, empathy and sincerity – those whom we label as ‘good’ in our snap judgements.

While the attributes or traits falling under the category ‘warmth’ may vary, they’re simply telegraphed to us – sometimes within moments of meeting someone. It is much like what Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose; by any other name would smell as sweet…”

In the world of business too, we enjoy working for and with people who project love. In general however, a corporate leader who is kind-hearted but incompetent may be considered likeable; but if he or she is unable to command the respect of the people who work for the company, the boss would be considered as being weak.

At the other extreme, a business leader who projects only strength, competence, authority and agency may be seen as either overbearing or abrasive. His or her demeanour may command the respect of staff but could also elicit resentment or worse still hatred. Gaining notoriety as a corporate dictator is a sure-fire way to make enemies who, given the slightest chance, will turn the tables on you.

About five centuries ago, Niccolò Machiavelli observed in his controversial political treatise The Prince that “…because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

There are far too many business executives and senior managers who blindly follow this line of Machiavelli’s leadership philosophy. And as a result, they destroy their careers, organisations and people who are good at what they do.

So here’s the conundrum: if neither love nor fear appears to work by itself, how should you lead?

Paradoxical as it sounds, you should be a leader who is both loved and feared – it’s about striking the right balance between projecting warmth and strength. You should follow a middle path of sorts.

And here’s a word of caution for those who join an organisation at senior management level. If you’re driven by the ill-advised belief that the first thing you should do is put your foot down, and prove to both your superiors and colleagues how clever you are, take it from me… you’re heading for a major career disaster!

Of course, the honeymoon with your superiors will be brief; and by all means, you must grab every chance within your reach to impress them while it lasts. But if your superiors feel you can’t walk the talk, they’ll call your bluff. At the very least, such a showdown could be awkward. But being merely a people-pleaser won’t help you settle into your role either.

In a well-researched article titled ‘Connect, Then Lead’ published in the Harvard Business Review in 2013, Amy J. C. Cuddy, Matthew Kohut and John Neffinger discuss at length the pros and cons of being loved and feared. I recommend the article to readers who have a deep interest in this particular subject.

According to Kohut and Neffinger, warmth comes before strength. As the former establishes trust and facilitates communication, it builds a conduit of influence. But be genuine about projecting warmth. If you fake it, people will sense it and consider you to be a pretender, which will seriously undermine their trust in you.

Equally important, remember to establish professional boundaries even as you seek to connect with people and avoid being perceived by others as a people-pleaser.

Once you’ve earned their trust, you can proceed to project your competencies without eliciting envy or resentment. And being consistently fair and firm will help you strike the right balance in leadership.