To be loved or feared? A 21st-century leader’s dilemma

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 September, 2016, 3:00pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 September, 2016, 9:51pm

As they strive to find innovative ways to lead in an increasingly complex world, corporate leaders are no longer bound by contemporary management theories and may instead choose to seek wisdom from leaders of the past.

One historical figure whose recommended leadership style they may or may not wish to emulate is the Italian politician Niccolo Machiavelli, often considered the father of modern political science. In 15th century Italy, powerful families ruled the masses. Should you be born to the “right” family, you were likely to grow up to be a wealthy and influential politician or banker.

Machiavelli’s infamous book, The Prince, was meant as a gift to the rising heir from the powerful Medici family, who was to inherit the Florentine kingdom. While intended to provide advice to the heir as to how he should best use, retain and expand his newfound power, the treatise also contained controversial leadership theories, the virtues of which are still debated today.

He made famous the classical leadership dichotomy, “Whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with.”

His belief was that it is far safer to be feared than loved as, given the promise of sufficient payoff, one’s subordinates would consider turning against a leader. However, if a leader is feared, “the dread of punishment never fails”.

Fast-forward some six centuries, and Machiavelli’s piece de resistance is still widely referred to today as a must-read strategy book for any upcoming individual who wishes to be an effective leader.

But is The Prince really still relevant today, particularly in more developed economies such as Hong Kong? Surely, we as a species have come a long way in terms of empowerment and the levelling of social dynamics.

Can corporate leaders today realistically adopt Machiavelli’s theory that it is better to be feared than loved?

The employer-employee dynamic in the workplace has changed in ways Machiavelli himself could not have foreseen. The traditional hiring dynamic in which employers get to carefully select their new recruit from a vast lineup of eager young high-flyers has flipped; the norm now is for employers to woo the best talent.

Leaders today are expected to actively involve their subordinates in the decision making process

This shift of power means that corporate leaders find it increasingly difficult to employ an authoritarian-style leadership. Gone are the days of ruling with an iron fist, replaced by an era of collaboration. Leaders today are expected to actively involve their subordinates in the decision making process or face the dire consequences of seeing little support and even less action.

The extent of employee empowerment has so effectively turned the tables that staff today are as choosy about their employers as companies are about their recruits. Websites such as Glassdoor have proliferated over the last decade, catering as they do to jobseekers’ increasing focus on the workplace environment and the level of development and welfare they can expect.

Moreover, today’s companies are no longer simply adding headcount, but rather “talent” - gifted, motivated staff who can push innovation to develop and maintain a competitive advantage. It is thus safe to say that having your employees fear you will be largely counterproductive.

The feared “dread of punishment” is no longer convincing, given modern-day levels of job mobility. Employees unhappy with their workplace are now more empowered than ever to take matters into their own hands and find themselves another position.

Given that leaders are no longer to be feared, then according to Machiavelli’s dichotomy, they would be better off being loved. This conclusion is backed up by contemporary management theory, and is clearly seen in the increased emphasis on creating an environment conducive to the development and inclusion of employees.

Employees unhappy with their workplace are more empowered than ever to take matters into their own hands

It is manifest in today’s emphasis on “job design” - a term used by human resources departments, broadly referring to efforts to increase job satisfaction - targeted at the new generation, with more opportunities for professional fulfilment. The name of the game has become actively investing in retaining talent rather than just furnishing headcount.

At the core of this is simply a greater need for leaders to be loved. When a generation of talented employees are guided by superiors whom they believe have their interests at heart and surpass the transactional to deliver the transformational, it is at that point that a leader is most effective at attracting, mobilising and retaining talent.

However, as with all things, leaders should strive to strike a healthy balance. Machiavelli himself admitted that ideally a leader should be both loved and feared, though he didn’t think this was possible.

Given the increasing proximity between superiors and subordinates and the decreasing size of teams in the workplace, there are ample opportunities for leaders to employ a mix of fear and love.

As the pace of work accelerates, practices such as target setting become more crucial in defining what is required of subordinates. Leaders should empower where possible, to push subordinates to grow and excel, and punish where necessary in the case of poor performance, to maintain equilibrium in the team dynamic and, importantly, to earn the respect of those they reward and discipline. In essence, the key to a healthy mix of fear and love is to work with subordinates towards mutually invested goals for shared success.

With these significant paradigm shifts, perhaps a revised The Prince 2.0 is needed to guide the 21st century corporate leader through these fast-changing times.

Ang Swee Hoon is associate professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School where Wesley Chia is a third-year student