Tough Leaders Get Ahead Faster, But...

Last Updated Jul 22, 2011 2:37 PM EDT

It's one of the longest-running arguments in management scholarship: Is it better for a leader to be loved or feared? Which approach produces the best results?

Some disturbing new research suggests a boss who is tough receives more opportunities for promotion over bosses who are fair. The fair boss may be a great leader, gets much accomplished, but is seen as less powerful in some key respects. A big "But..." concludes the study, however, perhaps giving all of us nice guys hope.

First, the findings, which are presented in the July-August issue of Harvard Business Review. The four scholars from several business schools ran an experiment that went like this. Observers were asked to view the interaction between a manager and employee as the manager delivered a decision about compensation. The words used were exactly the same, but in one group, the manager delivered the news rudely, in the other with respect. The observers rated Rude Manager more highly.

The bias that toughness equates with effectiveness is widespread, the researchers believe, and influences managers as they decide on their own styles of leadership. "Managers see respect and power as two mutually exclusive avenues to influence, and many choose the latter," according to the authors.

And now for the "but." Tough managers may get near-term results and advancements, but they often create long-term problems not only for themselves, but for their organizations.

The moral of the story: Companies should place more value on fairness as they evaluate their managers. "Our early follow-up research suggests that managers whose style is based on respect can gain power," write the researchers--Batia M. Wiesenfeld, Naomi B. Rothman, Sara L. Wheeler-Smith, and Adam D. Galinsky. "Their path upward may be difficult, but it's one worth taking, for their company's sake as well as their own."

What style of management creates the best results in your company?

(Photo by Flickr user rogerimp, CC 2.0)

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  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.