Tough or Nice? Which Should A Leader Choose?

There’s an archetype that’s been around for a long time in business:  the Great Man.

It’s based on the belief that an extraordinary individual can save the day.  It’s personified by the work of the actor John Wayne:  the hero rides into town, and makes everything okay.  The End.  Fade to black.  Roll the credits.

The Great Man is a Grit Man.  He’s determined to persevere through challenges no matter what.  As the myth goes, his grit has been forged in the fires of toughness of life experience.  It’s the toughness that’s made him who he is.

The leader’s version of this story goes like this:  If you want to win, you have to be tough with your team.  Toughness builds character.  If you don’t harden them up, they’ll be weak.  They will lose.

It’s a compelling story.  It’s easy to look around and find data to support it. For example, professional sports are filled with stories (and quotes) about toughness:

Nice guys finish last.   Leo Durocher

Winning isn’t everything.  It’s the only thing.  Vince LombardiConcentration and mental toughness are the margins of victory.  Bill Russell

If a leader has graduated from the “tough” leadership training school, they’ll tend to use the same toughening tools with the next generation.  If you ask them why, they’ll say “Because that’s how it’s done.”

The Great Man leadership model is an anachronism in today’s 21st Century World.  (As though you couldn’t already tell from it’s blatant gender bias.)The sad truth, however, is that many organizations still have Great Man leadership legacies that are alive and well.  In these companies, leaders (at all ranks) value toughness above all else.

So what’s a leader to do today?  What’s the right answer?  Should leaders strive to be nice rather than tough?

No.  And Yes.The fact is, leadership can’t be boiled down to one singular dimension.  An HBR study found that employees who worked for a  solely “tough” leader had engagement scores of 8.9%.  Those who worked for solely “nice” leaders had even lower scores: 6.7%.  But, for those who reported working for leaders who were both tough and nice, the engagement levels rose to 68%.

Tough and nice.  Leadership isn’t just one thing.  Great leaders embrace paradoxes- seemingly contradictory strengths – to achieve an internal balance.  If they didn’t do so, one strength would get so overused so as to become a liability.

The confirmation bias causes us to seek out information that will confirm our pre-existing beliefs.  If you want to believe that leadership is all about toughness, there’s  data out there to prove you right.  (Like the sports quotes above.)

However, if  you want to view leadership as a paradox, there’s lots of data to support that as well:

A true leader has the confidence to stand alone, the courage to make tough decisions, and the compassion to listen to the needs of others.  Douglas MacArthur

We must combine the toughness of the serpent with the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.  Martin Luther King, Jr.

One of the best paradoxes of leadership is a leader’s need to be both stubborn and open-minded. A leader must insist on sticking to the vision and stay on course to the destination.   But he must be open-minded during the process.  Simon Sinek

By the nature of the role, leadership is paradoxical.  Here are some other paradoxes of leaders:

They are direct and caring.

Leaders are called on to speak the hard truth.  Great leaders can do so so with compassion and tact.  They don’t sugar coat things, but they don’t bulldoze over people, either.  On the flip side, they’re also open to hearing the hard truth.

They are confident and humble.

Leaders need a strong ego to believe in their mission, to build a shared vision and turn it into reality. Great leaders realize that their ego ultimately has to serve their vision, not themselves.

They are optimistic and realistic.

Leaders are not served by being Pollyanna: always seeing the world through rose-colored glasses.  Great leaders find the most optimistic version of reality and build from there, because they know that a sense of progress and belief in a worthy goal are tremendous motivators of behavior.

They are passionate and calm.

Emotions are contagious.  Great leaders make their passion visible, and they know that unbridled negative emotions can sink a ship.  They are cool and resilient under pressure. They know that others take their cues from how they behave.

They are visionary, but also do details.

Leaders need a flexibility to be able to move from big picture to feet on the street.  As a Japanese proverb states, Vision without Action is a daydream; Action without Vision is a nightmare.   Great leaders are able to move from strategy to tactics and back again easily.

They work hard and rest well.

Great leaders know that human energy needs to be periodically revitalized.  As such, they create time and place for renewal.  This includes breaks, clear stopping points and boundaries between work and non-work, as well as vacations.  They know a secret to getting more done is not doing from time to time.

What other paradoxes do great leaders embrace?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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