In an attempt to study the question, "Is it better to be feared or loved?", research published in the Harvard Business Review suggests that being a leader perhaps requires a bit of both.

Or rather, leaders shouldn't be "feared" a la Genghis Khan, but they should be recognized for being competent and not someone who is passive or will allow others to walk all over them.

This projection of competency alone is not enough, however, as the researchers posit that the best leaders are also inviting in a way that encourages their team to naturally engage with them, hence: the “happy warrior.”

As suggested in the paper "The dynamics of warmth and competence judgements," the two traits that we tend to respond to first when evaluating someone are warmth and competence.

In fact, this analysis of multiple behavioral studies declares that these two traits are overwhelmingly influential when it comes to assessing our peers:

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.

Why are warmth and competence so dominant? The researchers say it is because they answer two very important questions we ask ourselves when sizing someone up:

  1. “What are this person’s intentions toward me?”
  2. “Is she/he capable of acting on those intentions?”

As Harvard associate professor Amy Cuddy notes in her analysis, Machiavelli was wrong, but not entirely off—in some sense, it is ideal to be both “feared and loved,” but warmth and trustworthiness are more important. Fear is also the wrong description; successful leaders should opt for projecting "competence, strength, and poise."

Why does warmth matter so much, and perhaps more importantly, why does the research above suggest that warmth should come before competence when projecting yourself to your team?

The answer lies understanding how we evaluate potential leaders. According to one finding from the analysis, when over 50,000 leaders were examined, only 27 of them were rated in the bottom quartile in terms of likeability and in the top quartile in terms of leadership effectiveness.

In other words, around 1 in ~2000 leaders were able to be effective while being thoroughly disliked, bad odds for any leader.

On the other hand, Amy Cuddy surmises that warmth is the “conduit of influence,” in that it facilitates trust and communication. Perhaps most importantly, it allows leaders to influence people's internal beliefs and attitudes, instead of just forcing or even controlling their behavior.

People may listen to strength (or fear), but they are willing to follow trust, which is why researchers suggest great leaders lead with warmth.

In many ways, the parallel is similar to the responsibilities of a leader vs. a manager, in that being a leader means having the warmth to inspire, and being a manager means having the competence to deliver.

Harvard professor John Kotter, who frequently writes on the difference between management and leadership, often compares the two as such:

  • Leaders set a direction; managers plan and budget.
  • Leaders align people; managers organize and staff.
  • Leaders motivate people; managers control and solve problems.

Both are important, but you should begin with becoming the kind of person people want to follow first.

Perhaps this is the reason why the "happy warrior" persona seems to be so effective in leadership roles: It is a personality that is likely to motivate people to follow the team's vision.

In a dataset with over 332,860 respondants, it was interesting to see how the ability to "inspire and motivate others" was important in practically every leadership role.

Knowing all of this certainly doesn't crack the code to great leadership—being an effective leader will still be just as hard as it ever was.

We do know, however, that a change in mindset can often nudge behavior. To think of yourself as a "happy warrior" offers a regular reminder to balance the traits of warmth and competence; to evaluate not only how your team sees you, but also how you engage with them.

Are you really approachable, or are you just the "my door is always open" sort of manager? Are you really respected, or are you just liked for giving way to demands? Are you really effective, or do people just do what you say begrudgingly in order to avoid being reprimanded?

Important questions to ask, and seeing yourself as a happy warrior may be an aid in reminding you that need to keep asking them—not only for your own benefit, but for the benefit of your team, so that you might do the best job you are able in guiding them to success.


Gregory Ciotti writes at, where he explores the intersection of creative work and human behavior. To get his best writing (featured on NYTimes, DiscoveryNews, PsychCentral and Forbes) sign up for the free newsletter.

About the Author

Gregory Ciotti

Gregory Ciotti writes about the intersection of creative work and human behavior.

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