Leadership Tough Love

February 2, 2011


“Leadership is about disappointing your people at a rate they can absorb,” says Martin Linsky, faculty chair of Leadership for the 21st Century. “It’s about delivering losses. The resistance comes when people experience your initiatives as a threat.  To be a leader, you sometimes have to be the bad guy and give up any dreams of being adored by employees. If that sounds tough, it is”.

A study by the UK Institute of Leadership & Management has found that people would rather work for a tough boss who is successful than a lenient one who fails to deliver the goods. Its poll of 1,500 managers, carried out with research firm AQR, found that, while qualities such as team-work and being focused on people were considered good attributes to have, when it came to delivering the goods, a bit of bloody-minded grit never went amiss.

The ILM’s research echoes a U.S. study published earlier this year by academics at the University of Chicago which has suggested that, for chief executives, hard-nosed personal virtues such as persistence and efficiency count for more than “softer” strengths such team-working or flexibility.

The ILM study found that the majority of managers polled would choose a hard manager who exhibited a real commitment to deliver over and above “nicer” bosses who took more of an interest in them as people but failed to deliver. The Chicago University research, meanwhile, looked at the personal assessments of 313 chief executive candidates to get an idea of what made a good leader. Of the 313, 225 were hired, with the academics also examining closely their subsequent performance. It identified five CEO traits that correlated most closely with business success at buyout companies, and five that scored the lowest.

The top five traits that mattered were: persistence, attention to detail, efficiency, analytical skills and setting high standards.

Those considered less important were: strong oral communication, teamwork, flexibility or adaptability, enthusiasm and listening skills.

“We found that ‘hard’ skills, which are all about getting things done, were paramount,” lead author Steven Kaplan, a professor of finance and entrepreneurship at the university, told the newspaper the Wall Street Journal, which has published the research.

“Soft skills centering on teamwork weren’t as pivotal. That was a bit of a surprise to us,” he added.

However, the survey was careful not to dismiss the value of the “soft” traits out of hand. A trait such as enthusiasm was self-evidently useful to have. But the key was that an extremely enthusiastic manager was unlikely to fare much better than one who was just enthusiastic. The same would apply to traits such as listening skills or treating people with respect.

By comparison, the value of “hard” traits increased non-stop. A certain amount of flexibility could make for a better chief executive, for example, but too much could shade into indecisiveness. Yet extra persistence, efficiency or standard setting would always be beneficial, it argued.

So does this mean only the tough-minded and steel-edged survive? That in the end lean towards displaying “That bloody-minded grit”? I reviewed the referenced reports as well as a lot of other information available on the topic. Underneath all of this is the gating attributes of fairness and respect. Yes fairness and respect. Management has several dimensions to it. Focusing on the task and getting things done through others are 2 key ones. Leadership on the other hand, has many dimensions. Great leaders can balance the soft and the hard. Great leaders know that achieving sustainable  results through a committed and hard working team will require tough love. Displaying the sensitivity and curiosity for people with the laser focus for moving the business forward.

Going through sessions of team building and polish are great. We all need them on occasion. Leadership education in the future will need to take more of the business side in account. the effective balance of people skills with driving to the goal line. In the past it was about knowing when to push and drive your team and when to ease up and respect them. Great leaders push all the time and expect the best. They create an environment of ownership, collaboration, innovation and accountability in a respective nurturing way . this is not easy stuff. More to come…

About Frank Picarello

Frank is a well-respected leader in providing technology services to small and medium-sized businesses. He is currently COO for TeamLogic IT, Chairperson for CompTIA's Small Business Owner's Group, and a member of CompTIA's Unified Communication Committee.

View all posts by Frank Picarello

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