Abraham Lincoln 2

This is an old question and many people throughout history have tried to answer it. One of them was Machiavelli. He talked about it in his famous book, The Prince, where he gives an insightful analysis of the subject and comes to the conclusion that it’s better for a leader to be feared than to be respected.

As a psychologist, I come across both the feared and the respected leaders. Both can be very effective in achieving the goals of their organizations. Therefore, I’ve learned not to judge either of them. To me, the respected one is not by default a better leader than the feared one. A high degree of respect is not a guarantee for a leaders’ success. On the other hand, fear can be a very powerful force to move people forward to a specific goal. Personally, however, I prefer to follow a leader that I can respect instead of leader I have to fear.

Although both types of leaders can be very successful, they create very distinctive journeys for themselves.

The Low Road

In most cases that I’ve seen, leaders are feared because they have used for too long what I call the “lower strategies”: they’ve misled others, lied, claimed credit for other peoples work, put their own twist on the facts, intimidated others, etc. By doing this they made progress in their career and brought financial success to their organizations or departments. Some are rude and direct; others are charming and almost delicate in their ways, but they all apply these lower strategies.

Losing the War

Through the years they usually lose the respect of others and they get increasingly isolated. Often, out of frustration or anger, people make jokes about them and that there is a lot of gossip behind their backs. The only one who doesn’t really know what’s going on is the leader him- or herself. Because they manage by fear, smart people start to avoid them and therefore they don’t receive honest feedback any longer. Followers who are scared of the consequences will tell these leaders only what they know they want to hear. It’s as if they create their own vicious circle. Because they use the lower strategies, they lose the respect of others, they become isolated, and through the years they grow an army of personal adversaries and even enemies. I have observed several times that when these leaders “stumble” in their career, because of bad luck or because they made a bad business decision, the “army” they raised (or at least some prominent members of it) will step in to make things much worse. When these leaders then see the deep anger and resentment they have created, some of them ask themselves: “What have I become?” And when they are honest with themselves, they don’t like the answer. They realize that they may have won many battles, but when they see how isolated and disrespected they have become, they realize that they haven’t won the war.

Building Allies

Winning a war is not normally something you can do alone. When I’ve observed the respected leaders, I’ve seen that almost all of them build up allies through the years. Probably the strongest and most effective way of building allies is by investing in the growth of others. These leaders invest by sharing their insights and experiences and this implies that they are not afraid of followers that could one day become even stronger and better than they are. By investing in others, they get respect in return. If, however, they invest naively in just anybody, they will be exploited. And if, on the other hand, they invest in an opportunistic way for the sake of having allies, they will not earn others’ respect. But if they are authentic as leaders and invest with good intentions, they will earn not only the respect but also the loyalty of their followers. If they then “stumble” in their career, they will receive support and protection.

Making a Choice

In working with both types of leaders, I’ve come to realize that in most cases they hadn’t made a conscious choice about the kind of leader they wanted to be. They initially tried (or copied) a certain kind of behavior and it brought them forward. Through the years, they continued on that path and “it felt right.” I often tell young leaders that they have a choice of whether to use the “lower” or the “higher” strategies, and that both can create financial success. At the end, however, it makes a significant difference in what kind of person you will become and in whether your legacy as a leader will be continued or if it will die the day you lose your power.


  • Rita says:

    I don’t think that a leader who puts his employees in fear will last long. He will last till the first rebellion, when a brave enough employee, who knows what he’s worth stand up against unfairness and disrespect. Doesn’t it prove that it’s better to be approachable and friendly with your employees than menacing but strategic?

  • Patricia Fiels says:

    Personally I wonder how such notions still exist and are practiced in today’s modern world. I think people have seen too much grief throughout history, and they don’t deserve to be intimidated for the work they do. Nevertheless, every now and again we hear people complaining about their bosses who appear to be soulless robots and threaten employees by dismissal and demand enormous scope of work to be done in impossibly short period of time.

  • Fred says:

    History proves that leaders who are feared are more successful but they don’t enjoy their success for a long time. They tend to use extreme methods and that’s why they gain their aim more quickly, but their vanity blinds them and they lose the grip even more quickly.

  • Bill Seamers says:

    Both these types of leaders successfully coexisted in history up to now. But I think that conscience of society is changing and it becomes more demanding to its leaders. Therefore,leaders can’t choose the easier way and keep people in fear, they have to work hard to gain the position of a leader and even harder to stay there.

  • Angie says:

    I work for one of these “feared” leaders and I do agree with everything the article states and the comments as well. I’m not sure how this person has lasted so long but they just keep continuing. Sad as they are very knowledgable and smart but very had to handle her attitude toward others.

Subscribe to Our Blog

Stay Social