To be Fear or to be Loved, that is the Question – From Hitler and Michael Jordan to George Washington

November 4, 2011

Political Theory


We have all heard the famous Machiavellian quote, “And here comes in the question whether it is better to be loved rather than feared, or feared rather than loved. It might be answered that we should wish to be both; but since love and fear can hardly exist together, if we must choose between them, it is far safer to be feared than loved”. However, is this really true? It is really better to lead with fear rather than love? As Machiavelli puts it, both would be the ideal – the fearful leader has a strong sense of protection and security while the loved leader gains more trust and companionship.

Because of the strong evidence that points towards both sides, it is difficult to tell which one is really the better of the two. Perhaps fear is more reliable and stable than love – something that is easily lost and broken. But, in contrast, fear can create corruption and power-hungry people, which could eventually lead to an unhappy society.

Historically, leaders tended to side with one or the other. We can look to Hitler as a perfect example of someone who led by fear – he was able to gain so much power by instilling such fear into his people that they had no choice but to comply. The results, however, were detrimental. If we want a figure of success that led by fear, we can look to athletes that have excelled in their abilities. Michael Jordan is a great example. His competitors were scared to death of his talents, his toughness and his ability to consistently win games. He ultimately led the league by the fear that he was able to instill in his opponents. Even when put up against some of the other better athletes in his time, they generally choked in his presence – overwhelmed by his fearful tone.  In contrast, George Washington led by love and was successful in his power. It is clear that both can be put into action and perhaps, with the right people in power both can work.

So what is the answer? In our society today, leaders try and combine both, by reaching out to the public and being an “iconic” figure while still invoking a sense of fear perhaps as a means to be taken more seriously.

In my opinion, while Machiavelli states that there is no way to embody both fear and love as a leader and we are able to find good examples of rulers that lead by only one or the other, I think recent leaders have broken with this view and have found successful ways to balance out the two. I think this is the best way to lead a society so that people are not forced to fear or love their leader but rather embody both so that should leaders love/fear be broken, there are not left “powerless”.

Clearly, there is no right or wrong answer to this question and it is still largely debated. Does Machiavelli’s theories still apply to society today? If so, how does our society function in conjunction with the fear and love leadership?

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3 Comments on “To be Fear or to be Loved, that is the Question – From Hitler and Michael Jordan to George Washington”

  1. asgersh Says:

    I believe that to be a good leader today you must be loved by the majority of your people, but feared and respected by your enemies. When a nation really loves their leader it means that they have complete trust in them to do the right thing and this usually leads to prosperity. It is essential to be feared by your enemies though. If your enemies and opponents do not fear you they will not be afraid to attack or try to turn the leader’s people against them. Machiavelli’s theories are harder to apply today because the world is more connected and there is threats from every corner of the world. If your own people fear you it will ultimately lead to your demise. If a leader is able to be loved and make his followers happy, while also being feared by their opponents, they will be very successful. A leader can not just be loved or feared to be successful now, they most have a mix of both.

  2. cchevat Says:

    I do not believe that there has to be either fear or love. There are many examples of leaders who emulate both sides and are able to use it to their advantage. On a small scale one can think of their parents. Parents obviously love their children and only want them to succeed but sometimes when a child goes astray or needs to be disciplined, a sort of fear is instilled in order to put their child on the right track. Another example of this is teachers. In the same vain teachers care immensely about their students and want to give them the tools necessary to learn as much as possible. But when students are slacking and are not showing their teachers that they are engaged in their learning, teachers can give their students more homework, pop quizzes, etc. so that students understand that the class should be taken seriously. In my opinion that is the best leader. One who can show compassion and care for its people/societ but at the society know when to put down a forceful hand, take control, and implement rules for the betterment of the society.

  3. mfriedlander92 Says:

    I think that there are ways to have society member’s respect authority without scaring them into fearing them as a leader. Like Roosevelt’s theory of “speak softly and carry a big stick” is a theory that can be applied to Machiavelli’s theories. There is no need to scare people into respecting you, but there should always be a little threat of fear subsiding underneath the surface level. If the society doesn’t think that the ruler has any control then they will run free and do whatever they please. This is the same as if the ruler was too friendly. The ruler needs to great good relationships with their people and be amiable, but should not be a push over.

    Machiavelli’s ideas of how a ruler should rule are still applicable today; however, I think that it should be more of a middle ground. The ruler should have respect and be feared in the way that the society members know he has power. But the ruler should also be friendly in that doesn’t create him to be a pushover, but more of have society members respect him for his friendliness and his ability to relate to them. There are obvious examples of when fear works and doesn’t work, the same goes with love. However, I think to make sure it always works, it should be a combination of fear and love. Extremes to either end are never fully successful, but a middle ground would be what is best for not just the ruler but for the society.

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