“My friend can’t wait to get to the hotel and spill the latest office gossip,” my friend shared. “I wanted to call you earlier, but my boss was with me in the cab.”
“Before you dive into the drama, let me ask you something,” I said. “Do you ever talk about all the chaos at work with your boss?”
“Do you want to talk to my boss?” my friend exclaimed. “Are you crazy? I say exactly what my boss wants to hear. People who tell my employer things he doesn’t want to hear get fired by the end of the quarter.”
Five hundred years ago, Machiavelli thought about a timeless problem and weighed his choices. “One should wish to be both,” he said, “but because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”
Now, behavioral science is adding its perspective. Data shows that Machiavelli was partly right: When we judge our leaders, we look at two things—how likable they are (warmth, trustworthiness) and how strong they are (competence, capability). These two qualities are crucial because they answer questions like “What are this person’s intentions toward me?” and “Can they act on those intentions?” These answers shape our reactions to others.
According to research, leaders seen as competent but lacking warmth can stir jealousy. Respect and bitterness are mixed in this feeling. When we admire someone’s skill but resent them, it can lead to problems. On the other hand, people seen as warm but unskilled may evoke pity. While compassion may motivate us to help, lack of respect can lead us to ignore them eventually.
While there are many qualities we notice in people, none are as powerful as warmth and strength. These two characteristics make up over 90% of how we perceive individuals.
So, the big question is: Is it better to be loved or strong? Many leaders focus on displaying their power, skills, and credentials. But that’s not the way to gain followers. Starting with strength before establishing trust can lead to fear and negative behaviors. Employees might become disengaged due to fear, affecting creativity, problem-solving, and mental capacity. In the long run, it’s a “hot” feeling with lasting consequences.
Research supports the idea that starting with warmth is the best approach to influence and lead. Warmth fosters trust, communication, and idea absorption. Even small nonverbal cues—like a nod, a smile, or an open gesture—show that you’re happy to be with others and listen to their problems. Prioritizing warmth helps you connect with people immediately, proving that you hear, understand, and can be trusted.
Most of us try to showcase our abilities, emphasizing power and fending off threats to our authority. However, this often ignores the fact that proof of trustworthiness is the first thing people check for in others. Studies confirm this behavior: most participants prefer competence-based training for themselves and soft-skills training for others.
Warmth adds significantly more to how people perceive us, usually sensed before competence. It promotes information exchange, transparency, adaptability, and collaboration. Trust enhances idea sharing and adoption, allowing individuals to modify their attitudes and ideas, not just their outward conduct. The sweet spot for influence and persuasion lies in balancing warmth and strength.
To show warmth, use your tone, validate emotions, and smile genuinely. To show strength, maintain good posture, move purposefully, and remain calm. Balancing both qualities creates the “joyful warrior,” a leader who can be open, decisive, humble, and focused on solving problems rather than criticizing people.
In conclusion, the best leaders are those who balance warmth and strength. These qualities reinforce each other and create a positive feedback loop. Being calm and confident allows you to be warm, open, and compassionate, ultimately converting your leadership from a threat to a gift.