When Leaders Must Cross The Toughness Line

With decades of talk about improving “emotional intelligence” (code for being nicer), and societies questioning gender roles–for men and women-the challenge for leaders is what is the toughness line and can they cross it?

One of the largest research studies on the traits of effective leaders, known as The Big Five, concludes that tough and even “abusive” leaders may be unavoidable and even desirable. The study identified Neuroticism (characterized by moodiness, jealousy and emotional reactivity) as one of the top traits of effective leaders. Abusiveness is a fuzzy line.  Some people perceive and cry abuse with leaders who use tough talk.  Others aren’t bothered by emotional confrontation. 

As an advisor to executives around the world, I’ve seen this research play out first hand For example, just last week I watched a President of a chemical company, Paul, stun his team with a 10 minute mini tirade. He is trying to raise the organization to a new level of innovation and this was a time to go over the line.  His team walked into the meeting room, to begin what they expected to be a 2 day feel good team building session. The day before, their teams had made presentations about new product ideas.  They were feeling really good – they thought they had succeeded in creating great collaboration, analysis, and recommendations.  He completely disagreed. 

“We failed” was his mantra.  “We didn’t raise the bar high enough”.  And he didn’t say it calmly or politely. He said it quite bluntly.  He said it emotionally.  Without regard for upsetting his team.  He wanted to upset his team. As I sat there looking at the bewildered looks in the eyes around the table, I realized he had crossed the line – and it was good!

This was not the first time nor will it be the last that I have seen such behavior. I’ve seen other C level execs lose their cool and be effective.  Many successful leaders fall into this description of moody and emotionally reactive. . Some famous ones include Jack Welch, Walt Disney, Roger Ailes of Fox News,  Henry Ford – all innovators in their industries. The biggest challenge of such innovators is not for THEM to think different, but to get employees to ‘think different’.  This is when you need to cross the line.

Based on my experience as a certified Emotional Intelligence coach, Neuroticism as described above is not taught in Emotional intelligence programs. In fact the opposite is espoused-  teaching leaders more empathy and relationship building skills. Commonly discussed is to avoid “amygdala hijacking” – when the emotional part of the brain takes over. The experts advise that you should not let your emotions take over.  My experience is different. 

I say Amygdala hijacking is good!  Losing it gets the message across. Allowing for some Amygdala hi-jacking makes it very clear what you want and expect. It sets the tone that the status quo is not acceptable.

Great leaders understand this line intuitively and push hard when they need their teams to innovate, to break patterns and “snap out” of their delusion that everything is fine.  Sometimes this means yelling. Sometimes their behavior goes over the line of what we think is appropriate. Used judiciously, these are the leaders that are both respected and effective.   

A major problem occurs when crossing the line of tough with not enough talent to back up your firmness.  This becomes abusiveness. Our consulting firm spends 30% of its time coaching executives to reduce the damage of neuroticism from leaders whose force is not backed by the talent of such innovators as Welch,  Disney, or Ford.  They could get away with a yelling fit or over controlling patterns because at the end of the day people admired the vision and intermediary results.

Others without the talent, but just toughness, need to and must change. If they don’t, then their teams are left with leader that is not known as an innovator, but more commonly known as an a-hole.

Some leaders just don’t understand that teams have strong expectations. They expect the leader to defend them against internal enemies. They expect the leader to care about the employee’s career. They expect the leader to ask about their weekend. But above all they expect the leader to lead the team to great results. If the leader does not enable the team to create great results, then anything that is done to violate the other expectations is magnified, and the leader becomes the enemy. However when the leader creates great results with the team, employees are willing to forgive other trespasses.

Take Julia for example. She was a tough minded, results oriented leader. But she hadn’t proven she could deliver. She came in guns blazing and crossed the toughness line. However, she did nothing to create positive results for the team. Her pushing and intimidating was seen as bullying and for the most part, the team hated her. They choose the age old ‘silent treatment’ = they offered no innovations, no suggestions. They just shut down.

By the way, this is a clue for you: If you team is apathetic or acting disempowered, look first to yourself. We have seen this countless times. It means you are either pushing too hard and/or haven’t proven that you have the team’s success as your #1 priority.

The other end of the problem is being loved – “We love (fill in the blank)” – If you hear this about a leader, be wary. We walked into a low producing team and when we asked everyone what they thought of the leader they said “ Jim is great! We love Jim.” As we probed, it was clear that everyone liked talking with Jim and meeting with Jim. However, Jim made no tough decisions nor gave no straight up feedback. And he had no judgment on the business – not good or bad.  He just ignored things that needed to be judged.   The result was that team performance and morale was in the dumps.

Jim is not alone. Many leaders are like Jim. They don’t fire who needs to be fired. They don’t celebrate the successes that need to be celebrated. They don’t have a code of conduct or values that they expect everyone to follow. As a result, they are ‘loved’ but ineffective.

The goal is to be respected This leader last week has talent and good business judgment.  He was and is not an a-hole.  He was right. He had good judgment in this case.  And in other cases.   His team knows it too – they told me when I interviewed them before this event.

Paul is respected because he doesn’t just go over the line all the time.  He picks his time.  Other times he gives people credit.  He gives people support. He has fun and laughs with the team.  While in some moments he my be hated, and others loved, in the end he is respected.

Am I saying you have to create terror in the hearts of your employees? Not exactly. But should they know that if they are not doing their best, better than they have done yesterday that they should fear being called out on it by you? Yes!

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