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Better to be Loved or Feared?

I’ve enjoyed watching classic mob movies. Once you get passed the glorification of violence, the good ones are full of brilliant acting, great dialogue, and scenes that are symbolic and even relevant to everyday life. One of my favorites is A Bronx Tale, starring Chazz Palminteri and Robert DiNero. It’s a great story with several themes all nicely woven together (e.g., fathers/sons, good vs evil, social class, race, and others).

I was recently working with the leader of a large business to align the executive management team on solutions to three key challenges facing the company, all related to scaling for growth. Things like refining segments, developing new products/services, and expanding globally. To successfully address their business challenges, the leadership team appreciated that the culture of the company would also need to evolve to support these priorities. Specifically, as they focused on decision-making, they realized that they could inadvertently limit the business if they were too involved with too many decisions.

The team also concluded that they needed to evolve their personal approaches to leadership if they expected to shape the broader company culture to embody greater levels of empowerment, accountability, and decision making. As I spent time with each leader discussing these adjustments, several explained the complexities and the nuance of their situations within the business context. These conversations reminded me of a scene from A Bronx Tale, “Is it better to be feared or better to be loved?” In this scene crew boss Sonny LoSpecchio is mentoring and responding to his young protégé when he is asked this question.

Admittedly, this is more of an attention-grabber than a perfect analogy, but for me it nicely illustrates the complexities of making adjustments to even just one leadership quality. For example, leaders are often asked to be more empowering or be more willing to drive decision making further down into the organization. To be clear, this is a common and necessary adjustment, however it can be challenging to strike the right balance between empowerment and oversight, given the realities of the situation. There can be a variety of factors at play (e.g., leader personality, employee/team capability, customer impact, structural alignment, business stability, etc.) that can tacitly discourage these adjustments.

A handful of thoughtful leaders at this organization where able to articulate this complex reality, where determining how to implement leadership adjustments was not so cut-and-dried. There were a variety of situational factors that went into each leaders’ personal cost/benefit analysis. This caution or reluctance is sometimes mistakenly interpreted by others as an unwillingness or inability to make the adjustment. Furthermore, verbalizing these factors can compound negative perceptions, when not fully understood or appreciated. Given the context, it can be understandable and even reasonable for a leader to not make an adjustment (or simply wait to see what others do).

My Main Point: Personal leadership adjustments are connected to strategy, evolving value models, operating model/structure, and culture. When there isn’t full alignment on these it’s harder and less likely that individuals will adjust and align their leadership approach to stated expectations.

Hopefully you are not debating whether you want to be loved or feared at your workplace! But you might be facing a similar situation or dichotomy that requires you to make subtle adjustments based on the nuances of your situation.

I’m sure Sonny did not refine his leadership philosophy at a formal leadership development program, but to his credit, he understood his business and the leadership requirements that were necessary for success as a crime boss.

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