Inspiration vs. Intimidation: Which Type of Leader Will You Be?

Frank Viscuso

Over the past few years, I have had the honor of providing leadership and team development seminars and workshops to hundreds of organizations throughout the world. One of the greatest gifts I have received in return has been the opportunity to break bread and speak with members who serve in a variety of capacities within their organizations. They share stories about past and present leaders within their organizations. Sometimes the stories are good and sometimes not, but I have come to realize that the biggest problem in an organization in California or New Mexico is usually not much different from the one in Florida, Maryland, or New Jersey—intentionally flawed leadership.

No One Is Perfect

Let me make one thing very clear: I am a flawed individual and, by default, a flawed leader. I make mistakes, but I adapt and learn from them. Every human being on the planet is flawed; we all make mistakes. The difference is that I am not intentionally flawed. The individuals who concern me are those who rise to a position of influence within their organization and choose to try to diminish and intimidate the people they are supposed to be inspiring and leading to a better place.

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Do you know someone who would fall into that category? If so, you probably also know that you would hate (or do hate) working for that individual. Sadly, those types of people also seem to groom or align themselves with others who think likewise. When this happens, that organization begins to fall into what I call the decay stage of team development: Your team becomes consumed with a lack of productivity and an increase in unnecessary drama.

Inspiration vs. Intimidation

As I prepared to speak to a group of professional firefighters on this topic at a recent event, two words kept coming to mind: inspiration and intimidation. Inspiration is the action or power of moving the intellect or emotions, the act of influencing or suggesting opinions. Intimidation is the action of compelling or deterring by or as if by threats.

Intimidation is a tool weak people use to try to stay in power. By maliciously and intentionally applying pressure, they feel they can separate themselves from the people they are supposed to be leading. Some workplace intimidations include verbal abuse, threats, physical violence, unrealistic deadlines, unjust criticism, sabotaging a person’s work, sexual harassment, and holding some people to a higher standard than others. Workplace intimidation causes employees and coworkers to feel inadequate and afraid; ultimately, it erodes the employees’ confidence and affects their ability to do their jobs.

When you intimidate and punish your people for making mistakes, you create a cautious, fearful environment in which those around you are less likely to make decisions and take actions for fear of the consequences. When this occurs, teams or individuals are no longer playing to win; they are playing “not to lose.” Consider the prevent defense in football. The long-standing joke is that all they are preventing is a victory for their own team.

Strong Leaders

Fear, greed, and ego are reasons leaders might choose to intimidate their team members instead of lead them. Stronger leaders, on the other hand, will seek to inspire the people under their charge. Inspiration is a tool that strong, confident people use, putting the team’s needs ahead of their personal agendas.

These people are secure enough to praise others and distribute credit to those who deserve it. Some of the tactics they use to inspire their team members are the following:

  1. Recognize people when they do a good job.
  2. Celebrate team victories and create traditions.
  3. Find out what motivates people and tap into an individual’s discretionary energy.
  4. See and share the big picture (tell people why they are doing things).
  5. Promote personal growth and motivation.
  6. Set small, attainable, measurable goals.
  7. Work hard but take breaks.
  8. Stay positive.
  9. Be transparent.
  10. Promote clarity.
  11. Provide a sense of security.
  12. Loosen the reins; don’t micromanage.
  13. Have fun and create an environment in which others can do the same.

The common internal question most people in new leadership positions often ask themselves is, “How should I lead this team?” The answer is, “Become the type of leader that you always wanted to work for.”

Finding Talents

Don’t make the mistake that so many people make and think that you need to have all the answers. You don’t, and you won’t. If you are lucky, you will be leading a team of people who all have their own set of unique talents, skills, and abilities. Embrace the fact that some people on your team will be strong in areas where you lack, and vice versa. Your goal: Find every team member’s unique skill set and use it for the benefit of the team.

Since talent threatens weak people, they try to beat down the enthusiasm of anyone they fear will outshine them. As a result, the member who could have been their greatest asset becomes disengaged. The worst sound you can ever hear is the silence of those who once were your most dedicated and passionate team members. That is the sound I have heard in some organizations whose leaders make decisions that benefit their personal agendas and egos more than that of the community they serve. Authority, a fancy title, or gold bars on your collar do not make you a leader. Having a team of people who trust you makes you a leader.

It is a commonly known fact that leading up the chain of command is significantly more challenging than leading down it. When you are the highest-ranking officer in the room, people have no choice other than to listen to you. If you work for a person who leads through intimidation, please know that your value is not diminished because someone is unable to see or acknowledge your worth. That person’s opinion of you does not have to become your reality. You get to create your own reality.

Hopefully, you are seeking ways to become a better version of yourself every day. If you intend to become an effective leader, work on your ability to develop trust and strong relationships with your team members. You want people to follow you not because they “have” to but because they “want” to. My hope for you is that you take my advice and work on your ability to inspire others around you. If you ever lose sight of what type of leader you should be, remind yourself to be the type of leader you always wanted to work for. That thought should be enough to get you back on track.


Frank Viscuso retired as a deputy chief from the Kearny (NJ) Fire Department. He is an international speaker and the author of four books, including Step Up and Lead (Fire Engineering, 2013) and Step Up Your Teamwork (Fire Engineering, 2015).

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