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Strength vs. Warmth: The Balance the Best Leaders Find

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Leaders want to influence the behaviors of followers. But what is the most effective way to do this? By asserting strength and competence, or by focusing on warmth and trustworthiness?

Style matters, claim several Harvard Business Review authors, Amy Cuddy, Matthew Kohut, and John Neffinger, in a recent article.  They write: “A growing body of research suggests that the way to influence – and to lead – is to begin with warmth.”  They underline this, noting:  “Before people decide what they think of your message, they decide what they think of you.” 

They observe that there are many characteristics in people, but the two most influential are warmth and strength:   “insights from the field of psychology show that these two dimensions account for more than 90% of the variance in our positive or negative impressions we form of the people around us.”

“Leaders who project strength,” they continue, “before establishing trust run the risk of eliciting fear, and along with it a host of dysfunctional behaviors.”  Interestingly, they also say that leaders naturally want to prove their competence and that they are “up to the job.”  As a result, many leaders focus their self-improvement efforts on competency training. . . . even though the same people judge others first on the basis of trustworthiness, not competence.

The authors conclude: “By putting competence first undermines leadership:  Without a foundation of trust, people in the organization may comply outwardly with a leader’s wishes, but they’re much less likely to conform privately – to adopt the values, culture, and mission of the organization in a sincere, lasting way.”

But it can’t be all warm and fuzzy.  Channeling Niccolo Machiavelli, the authors opt for a combination of warmth and strength.  And that’s the trick of a great leader!

Image via  Stocksnapper/Shutterstock.com

John M. Kamensky is a Senior Research Fellow for the IBM Center for the Business of Government. He previously served as deputy director of Vice President Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government, a special assistant at the Office of Management and Budget, and as an assistant director at the Government Accountability Office. He is a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration and received a Masters in Public Affairs from the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin.

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