To be Loved or Feared

Santi_di_TitoI’ll never forget the Marine who taught me about Leadership. More specifically, I’ll never forget the Captain, USMC who taught Leadership: Theory and Applications, a professional development course I took as a midshipman. Like any course on human behavior, it was filled with charts of unquantifiable concepts, meaningless Venn diagrams, and the occasional brilliant insight. I wish that we took leadership education more seriously, but that’s kinda difficult when it’s competing with EE and Applied Thermodynamics for your attention.

Okay, so I don’t remember anything about the instructor. I do remember his sea stories, though, and one in particular. When we reached the chapter on Authority, the Captain relayed an experience from his early days as a 2LT. He had just reported to his new platoon, and observed what he believed was a general lack of discipline within the unit. He needed to quickly communicate to his men that there was a new sheriff in town, and that the days of poor discipline were over.

He called for the Platoon Sergeant to report to his office immediately. When the Platoon Sergeant arrived, the 2LT issued a set of inconvenient orders calculated specifically to entice a protest. When the Platoon Sergeant objected, the 2LT sternly reminded him to stand at attention when addressing an officer, and that as soon as he had relayed the orders to the Squad Leaders, he was to put a new shine on his boots. Confident that he was finally in the presence of a True Leader, the Platoon Sergeant about-faced and executed, and they lived happily ever after. The midshipmen nodded in mesmerized admiration.

Man, what I would pay to watch some new DIVO try that.

Maybe the story isn’t completely bullshit—the services have starkly different cultures by necessity. I have my doubts, though, as should you any time someone recalls how tough they were as boot JO. I can’t imagine this would play out well, even in the Marines. Even if it did, the Navy does not work this way—it isn’t because our JOs are meek and stupid and Chiefs are really in charge or anything like that. It’s because warships are just too damn complicated for that kind of organization, and our interpersonal dynamics are accordingly complex. There’s just too much to learn.

Machiavelli Redux

Whether it is better to lead through personal rapport or intimidation is a very old question. The original “Philosopher of Power” Niccolo Machiavelli famously observed that it is better for a leader to be feared than to be loved by his people, because fear is easier to sustain. This is also the guy who held that any good leader must be an adept liar and must always be prepared to break promises, so there’s that. Sadly, none of us are 16th century despots.

Nobody wants to be hated by their people. It is simple human nature to desire the approval of those around us. Moreover, the degree to which we depend on one another makes it professionally hazardous to be despised. I think we’ve all seen an unpopular officer stumble through their tour, tripping on obstacles that a supportive division or watch team could have easily pointed out or corrected. That is a miserable way to live, and is not normal—if this is you, there is something wrong with the way you’re acting and you need to confront it.

(I am reminded of a certain Division Officer who once remarked to me that if the division hates his guts, it must mean he’s doing his job. Yeah, he failed miserably.)

That said, it isn’t necessary or advisable to pursue popularity. Nobody really respects a human golden retriever, or even wants one around. I’m all for being friendly and affable with the sailors, and even pissing all over the boundaries of protocol on occasion—I think that’s part of being a JO. I’ve seen no real benefit, though, for those sad JOs who try to be “one of the guys.” It might be nice for the ego, but it doesn’t make the division run more smoothly and it does introduce a lot of unnecessary complications.

goldenIn other words, it is nice to be liked, but it should never be the motivation behind your actions. If you’re courteous, considerate, and empathetic in the execution of your duties, you’ll be liked. If you obviously want to be liked, you’ll be a golden retriever, and will be dismissed from the table accordingly.

You must be capable of making an unpopular decision. You absolutely cannot please everyone, and at some point they will accuse you of being spineless and weak-willed for executing the intent of your superiors. You must own the decision, and shouldn’t apologize for something you intend to do or something you would do again. Apologize when you have made a mistake.

“True leaders must be willing to stake out territory and identify and declare enemies. They must be fair and they may be compassionate, but they cannot be addicted to being loved by everybody. The man who needs to be loved is an extortionist’s dream. That man will do anything to avoid face-to-face unpleasantness; he will sell his soul down the river for praise. He can be had.” -VADM James Stockdale

To be loved or feared. Ultimately, I think it is a silly question for a Junior Officer to ponder. Just be a decent human being. My father always told me that if I think I’m conflicted between being a good officer and being a good man, I should just be a good man and the rest would take care of itself. If you concentrate on doing the job while constraining your behavior to that of a decent, empathetic human being, your local popularity will be irrelevant.

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2 thoughts on “To be Loved or Feared

  1. Another great article! The title is really a misnomer, because it isn’t an either/or choice. Some days people are not going to like you, and some days you’ll be the most popular person on the boat. Your style will vary. More importantly, you’ll be judged in the end by everyone (subordinates, peers and superiors) by how effective you are, and effectiveness is an objective measure. Did your EVALS get off on time? Did you pass INSURV? Are watches being relieved on time? All this and more goes into your effectiveness. If Sailors fear you, they will lie to you and you’ll have problems below the surface that eat away at your division. If your Sailors love you like a golden retriever, they will not heed your deadlines and do what they want, not what the CO needs.

  2. Shakes my head and laughs: Glad I’m retired. Manage your situations and lead your people. Know who you can count on and realize you have to delegate. Find the weak links, it may even be you! You don’t have to be heavy handed or all warm and fuzzy but hold everyone to the professional standard. Those that aren’t cutting it may need mentors, those that don’t want it may need a round of discipline or out. Each command will be different, present different challenges as will each individual charged under your command. Have several leadership styles under your belt: Authoritarian, Transactional, Transformational, and even Paternalistic for your newest/youngest members who are away for their first time. Fortunately, I have the advantage of hind sight…did I do it right when I was in? Sometimes… but there were times the CO was so far up my ass you’d need a colonoscope to see him. You don’t have to be loved or feard…but you should earn the respect of your people..and I mean more than the contrived respect of the uniform and what it stands for. That’s a given. When you earn their respect it’s for the person that fills the uniform because you have given them respect for their capabilities or you have assisted them in their professional development.

    Kind regards,
    J.I.Arnn IV, RN, MSN, TQM, USN-Ret.

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