"Is it better to be feared or loved?"
This is a somewhat cliched interview question for potential leaders that is intended to try and capture how a leader wants to be perceived. There are die-hard advocates of each answer as well as people who are deeply opposed to one or the other. I like to dissect this in terms of the goal of a leader, which I believe is to influence individuals, teams, and organizations to effectively deliver durable results.
Fear can certainly be a motivator to complete tasks. Team members who are afraid of some form of punishment, be it being yelled at, losing a bonus, or getting fired, will absolutely be motivated to avoid that negative outcome. There are leaders who take some pride in this - that their team members fear them a little bit. Again, this can drive people forward and get them to complete tasks and meet deadlines, but if we look at the “durability” goal for leadership, this approach ultimately fails. Most people don’t want to work in fear; the stress and unpleasantness of that kind of environment will lead them to find an opportunity to get out whenever they can. Even short-term results can be jeopardized because people are doing whatever they think will let them go unpunished rather than what they think is right! I’ve always felt that the moment someone fears losing their job is the moment they stop doing their best work.
Does that mean that it’s better for a leader to be loved? In truth, team members that love their leaders are often willing to do whatever is asked, and likely on a much more durable basis than when fear-driven. But sometimes this love is based on attributes that are somewhat tangential to our work - some of us love that leader that always brings in doughnuts, that’s ready with a quick joke and a pat on the back. This isn't necessarily bad, but if a leader is more focused on doing things to be loved than on delivering results, a happy team may meander through their work without a clear outcome. Also, as the saying goes, love can be blind. We can see this in the way people in the tech industry exhibit a hero worship of tech leaders that we don’t even work for and have a belief that they can do no wrong. At some point this is unhealthy, particularly within an organization. I know I make mistakes and I want my team to point them out to me, as unpleasant as that can be.
So where does this leave us in terms of the initial question?
Simply that it sets us up with a false dichotomy.
If there’s one thing I want my team to feel towards me, it’s trust. Trust isn’t easy to come by, and for a leader it goes deeper than simply being trusted that you’ll do what you say. As leaders, we should be trusted that we have our clients’ and/or organizations’ best interests in mind, trusted that we have our team members’ best interests in mind, trusted that our team members can come and speak to us when they have new ideas or concerns, especially if they have concerns with what we’re doing. Developing this kind of trust takes work, it takes relationship building, it takes consistent active demonstration that you can be trusted in these ways.
As a leader, I personally am not looking for my team to complete tasks (which can be driven through fear) or to simply do whatever I ask (which can be motivated by love). I want my team to deliver results, I want them to grow. I want them to succeed. I want them to challenge me and each other and make all of us better at what we do. Neither fear nor love can consistently create this kind of environment. In my experience, only trust can do this.
Ultimately, cultivating this level of trust gives you the ability to more effectively influence team members and organizations, and will drive truly durable results.
Seth is the CTO at Bounteous where he sets the technical strategies for both his firm and his clients, and where he coaches technical and non-technical leaders.