Why leaders should be neither feared nor loved

Good leaders find the right balance between compassion and command


This article originally appeared in the October 18, 2018, PoliceOne Leadership Briefing. To read the full briefing, visit Leading by fear | Successful evaluations | Predictive policing, and add the Leadership Briefing to your subscriptions

Machiavelli famously said, “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both."

As I look back over my career as a leader and a follower, it is hard for me to determine whether more leadership styles have been crippled by the desire to be loved or by the desire to be feared.

Perils of leading by fear

It is what those who lead by fear and intimidation don’t know that weakens their influence. (Photo/PixaBay)
It is what those who lead by fear and intimidation don’t know that weakens their influence. (Photo/PixaBay)

I once worked for an old school ex-military officer who, to this day, is my finest example of leadership by terror. This was the kind of fellow who kept personnel files full of complaints and reprimands and few commendations. He had me write a three-page memo on why I left my jacket hanging in the squad room during my days off. A successful but rather perilous arrest I proudly made was noted by the chief only because I cracked a lens in the patrol car’s tail light during the event that resulted in an $18 deduction from my paycheck.

But it is what those who lead by fear and intimidation don’t know that weakens their influence.

My old boss never knew the good ideas his troops may have had. Although he claimed to have an open-door policy, the officers did everything in their power to keep from walking through it.

He also never knew that his officers were united in strategies to manipulate his wrath. In secret negotiations with the lieutenant we discovered that if the LT got angry about something first, the chief would forego his own rage. Apparently as long as somebody was having a fit about a situation, that was good enough for him. Whether by default or intent, the boss was teaching anger and intimidation as a management style.

When subordinates think they are going to be skewered one way or another, their avoidance behavior can be conspiratorial. For example, on a midnight shift I responded to a silent alarm at a recreation center with my lights off for a stealthy approach. It was a good strategy other than forgetting that there were rows of concrete parking bumpers in my path. I arrived on scene with two blown front tires with bent rims. My sergeant, imagining the chief blowing his stack made certain arrangements with a friend who was a tow driver to have my patrol car repaired. I paid the costs out of my own pocket, then made some runs up and down the interstate to rack up some miles to make up for my time out of service.

Perils of wanting to be loved

For the leader who wants to be validated, adored and revered there is a temptation to give in to any request for time off or special assignments. It is too tempting for subordinates to resist taking advantage of nice guy management.

Giving breaks and doing mini-counseling sessions instead of documenting conflicts and policy violations can allow a problem employee to operate with impunity for too long. When the leader who needs to be loved is forced to apply real discipline, the resentment and bruising of morale will be worse than a leader who consistently applies policy in resolving problems.

Mission first

The leader who consistently keeps the mission first will find the right balance between compassion and command.

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