The canonical text for despotic leaders is Niccolò Machiavelli’s classic The Prince, in which he famously advised, “It is much safer to be feared than loved, if one has to lack one of the two.” By process of elimination, since you cannot be loved and still be the boss, go ahead and be fully feared.
People who follow this advice are what psychologists Daniel Goleman calls “coercive leaders” in his seminal Harvard Business Review article Leadership That Gets Results. In his research, he studied the leadership styles of nearly four thousand CEOs. The most hated? “Coercive leadership.” The coercive leader, Goleman writes, creates “a reign of terror, bullying and demeaning his executives, roaring his displeasure at the slightest misstep.”…
A crisis explains the emergence of coercive leaders, in business and in politics. As Goleman notes, they can be appealing and even somewhat effective in the short run, if for no other reason than that, at least in appearance, they put an abrupt end to what people consider an unacceptable status quo. For an organization in free fall, this is not a small victory. In the long run, however, coercive leaders are not what people want, so coercive leadership often ends badly, in scandal or ignominious defeat….
Coercive leaders can persist for a long time. Sooner or later, however, they fail. Coercive behavior destroys morale and leaves people alienated. As psychologists Jennifer Lerner and Larissa Tiedens note, tendencies toward blame and anger exhibited by coercive leaders escalate “in a recursive loop” and have “especially deleterious effects in interpersonal and intergroup relations.” People turn on one another and don’t trust their colleagues or neighbors. Such leaders destroy trust and morale even among those who are not the direct objects of their coercive contempt….
Beyond ruining relationships, coercive leadership also begets mediocrity. “The [coercive] leader’s extreme top-down decision-making kills new ideas on the vine,” Goleman writes. “People feel so disrespected that they think, ‘I won’t even bring my ideas up.'” No one tells the boss bad news for fear of getting blamed. Any sense of responsibility for the common good of the enterprise evaporates and is replaced by a culture of contempt….
Coercive leaders come at a high cost: cruelty, chaos, and a culture of contempt. They may produce short-term wins, and may hang on for some time, but people ultimately become tired of the collateral damage they cause. Constant conflict is exhausting, drives away excellence, and destroys morale. People don’t like to be belittled by the leader or see others humiliated. Moreover, when the competition of ideas within a business or government is shut down, the long-term impact can be ruinous….
Can a new generation of leaders who want a better country address the need for dignity and opportunity without the costs of coercive leadership? The answer is yes, and it takes us back once again to Goleman’s research on leaders. Specifically, we need what he calls authoritative leadership. In his data analysis, he finds that there are far and away the most effective leaders for long-lasting prosperity and success.
Authoritative leaders in a company, according to Goleman, are visionaries who set a course for an institution and inspire each member to take responsibility for getting to the final destination. While coercive leaders drive people away by belittling and blaming, authoritative leaders garner their support by offering encouragement and trust. They foster a culture that affirms each team member’s important to the work being done, and in doing so, convince individuals to invest deeply in the long-term prosperity of the organization. The aspirational approach of authoritative leaders produces the kind of success that builds on itself over time.
While authoritative leaders promote their own overarching vision, they are not authoritarian. They do not suppress dissent, instead granting employees the freedom to disagree and solve problems on their own. The operational freedom granted by authoritative leaders promotes the individual creativity, accountability, and initiative that is essential to the success of any business….
If our goal is to restore dignity, it’s not enough to smash a conference table or two and excoriate “the establishment.” What we truly require is a new vision from authoritative leaders for the purpose of our economy and public policy. By articulating a clear aim of restoring human dignity and expanding opportunity, authoritative leaders can create space for Americans to think about old problems in new ways. Under the banner of such a vision, every American will be free to find better ways not just to “help” those who have been left behind, but to actually make them more necessary–more needed in their families, their communities, and the nation.
Authoritative leaders are not peacemakers. They aren’t conflict-averse. They just understand how to manage conflict in a way that is not destructive. Authoritative leaders know we need conflict in order to produce the best policies to help the chronically unemployed–the millions of Americans who, after years of trying, have given up on finding a job and dropped out of the labor force–find dignified work once again. They know we need disagreement about the best ways to reform the social safety net to increase incentives to seek employment without crushing those who need assistance or their families. They know we need competing ideas on how to rescue the millions of Americans addicted to drugs and hopeless about their futures. They know we need different approaches to help people become more necessary through better education, including ways to expand career- and technical-training programs, for the young and also middle-aged populations.
Sometimes this disagreement leads to a conflict of values. For authoritative leaders, that’s all right, too. Their goal is not that we all just get along. In fact, they typically instigate vigorous debates and challenge people in uncomfortable ways. Jesus, the ultimate authoritative leader, said, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” He turned over the money changers’ table in the temple.
In fact, authoritative leaders are capable of showing anger–but the right kind of anger. Anger comes in two major forms: That on one’s own behalf and that on behalf of others. Coercive leaders often get angry on their own behalf. When somebody offends them, they get angry and lose control. Their anger is an expression of pride–and pride is perceived by others as weak and selfish. Prideful anger is the opposite of strength.
Authoritative leaders, by contrast, get angry on behalf of others, especially those who have no voice. That is called righteous anger, and within reason, it is a good and noble thing. It stimulates admiration. If you feel that politicians in Washington are hurting the poor or putting our national interest at risk, an authoritative leader can justifiably be angry. Righteous anger can motivate action and bring about positive social and political change. Nelson Mandela felt righteous anger over the injustice of apartheid and led the movement that peacefully ended white apartheid rule and ushered in a multiracial democracy.
Mandela also befriended the white prison guards who kept watch over him on Robben Island, and which brings up another important point. The righteous anger of an authoritative leader doesn’t cast anyone into outer darkness. It always promises to be forgotten when things are set right, because authoritative leaders have no permanent enemies and are capable of love for all. Authoritative leaders can get angry, but they are still nice people.
Righteous anger is an expression of generosity. It is kind to stand up for the oppressed. It is compassionate to fight for those who are weaker than you are. This kind of generosity is not weakness. It is hard and it is tough. Anger on behalf of somebody weaker than you strengthens your position as a leader. In the words of James Q. Wilson in The Moral Sense, “Anger is the necessary handmaiden of sympathy and fairness, and we are wrong to try to make everyone sweet and reasonable.”
In our politics today, the biggest threat we face is rejecting kindness not in favor of anger, but of contempt. As we have seen, contempt destroys unity and leads to permanent division. It’s the political equivalent of using weapons of mass destruction. In an arms race, it sometimes feels as though one must adopt this weapon. That is incorrect. In the long run, niceness and strength (with occasional righteous anger) are the best combination for effective, authoritative leadership and the best way to win–because in the long run, people are instinctively attracted to happy warriors who fight for others.