Machiavelli, A Bronx Tale, and Trump - is it Better to be Loved or Feared? | Tolero Solutions
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Machiavelli, A Bronx Tale, and Trump – is it Better to be Loved or Feared?

Machiavelli, A Bronx Tale, and Trump – is it Better to be Loved or Feared?

The question – is it better to be loved or feared – is an age old question.  One contemplated by leaders, philosophers, and mob bosses alike.

500-years ago Niccolo Machiavelli – often called the founder of modern political science – said that “…whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? One should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”

I was recently watching the 1993 movie A Bronx Tale – an American crime movie set in the Bronx during the 60’s – now turned broadway musical. I mean, who doesn’t love Robert De Niro?

In A Bronx Tale the character Sonny LoSpecchio – a mob boss of sorts – was asked “is it better to be loved or feared? He replied – “That’s a good question. It’s nice to be both, but it’s very difficult.  But if I had my choice, I would rather be feared.  Fear lasts longer than love.

Though I understand Machiavelli and Sonny’s point, I am not a fan of leading by fear. Fear triggers a negative emotional response in most people. A leader is usually feared when they make threats or make decisions that negatively impacts their people. Although fear can be a motivator – in the long term – it’s not a behavior that often yields positive and sustainable engagement and commitment. So being feared isn’t necessarily a good thing. And it doesn’t help that if you’re feared you’re also usually hated by some.

The truth is – no leader can make everyone happy – even leaders who are loved by many will have haters. Sometimes you make tough decisions, you challenge your people to think differently, and you push them outside their comfort zone.

Granted, Sonny isn’t your standard business leader. He does, however, make an interesting case for leading with fear vs. love. Donald Trump isn’t your standard business leader either, or your standard President, though it seems he also prefers leading with fear vs. love.

I recently came across a television interview from 2016 where then Presidential candidate Donald Trump was asked the same question. His response, “I’d rather be respected than both.” 

President Trump’s response to this age old question is intriguing. He places being respected above being loved or feared. I too am a fan of respect, though, respect must be earned. In order to be respected, you’re usually also loved or at least liked, though it is possible to respect those we fear. Earning respect isn’t just about taking action. It is easier to earn respect if people know you’re making tough decisions with the best interest of the greater good in mind. If they feel you are transparent, you’ve built trust, you’re self-aware, you’re compassionate, and you’re accountable.

The reality is President Trump has yet to earn the respect of many. He is not transparent, he hasn’t built trust, he isn’t self-aware, and his ability to take action for the greater good is questionable to many.  See the healthcare bill debacle, his Muslim ban, and the countless other distractions and questionable ethical choices his administration has created.

Leaders who are respected get shit done! But the shit they get done benefits the people they serve. They don’t bark orders, take a my way or no way approach, or ignore the voices of large groups of those they lead. They listen, they engage, they build trust, they are accountable.

Even Sonny LoSpecchio understood these things. And although he was loved by some and feared by others, he was most certainly respected.

Regardless of whether you’re leading a company, the mob, or the United States of America – no matter how hard you try some will love you and others may still fear you. Being respected on the other hand, well as Trump is learning, that carries no guarantees.

So what helps a leader be respected?  

High level –  here are a few qualities that make a leader respected and a few that don’t.

Respected Leader Not Respected Leader
  • Honesty
  • Dishonesty
  • Transparency
  • Secrecy
  • Inspiration
  • Pessimism
  • Authenticity
  • Disingenuous
  • Empathy
  • Lack of compassion
  • Trust
  • Mistrust
  • Power for the people
  • Self serving power
  • Values equality
  • Perpetuates  oppression
  • Recognition for a job well done
  • Ignoring a job well done
  • Helps others succeed
  • Only helps themselves succeed


So, Machiavelli and Sonny LoSpecchio both raise interesting points.
Personally, I’d rather be both a bit loved and a bit feared, despite the difficulties of uniting them in one person. I do, however, agree with Trump on the importance of being respected as a leader. Perhaps he’ll take some action to begin earning that respect he claims he desires.

About Scott Span, MSOD: is CEO & Lead Consultant of Tolero Solutions – a Leadership Effectiveness & Change Management firm.  He helps clients in achieving success through people, creating organizations where people enjoy working and customers enjoy doing business. 

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