by Steve Adubato, PhD
A couple of years ago, I wrote about a powerful leadership lesson that was told to me in a public television interview with Gen. Colin Powell many years ago. At the time, I asked him about the essence of leadership and he said, "Being a great leader means sometimes pissing people off."
In coaching managers and leaders on how to communicate and deal with challenging situations and employee performance issues, I’ve often referred to this particular leadership lesson. The reaction many times is visceral, in that it causes people to think how willing or capable they are to do what Powell proposed. But in his book, "It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership," the former Secretary of State offers a variety of other leadership lessons that are just as practical and useful for professionals who face challenging situations.
Consider a few:
Kindness works. It’s interesting that the same general would offer this leadership lesson after saying a great leader needs to be capable of "pissing people off." But Powell’s argument is that great leaders understand the need to empathize and be compassionate with those who report to them. Sometimes people’s performance problems may be related to serious personal issues.
Being kind doesn’t mean ignoring those performance problems, but it does mean caring enough to ask if there is any way you can be helpful without being too intrusive. Great leaders offer time off to team members they know need it to deal with family issues like a seriously ill parent or child, or if an employee is going through a divorce. Again, it doesn’t mean that high performance standards aren’t important, but it means your people come first as human beings. And while you aren’t doing it because you expect to get something in return, being kind as a leader can yield tremendous loyalty in the long term.
Get mad, then get over it. Like many professionals running organizations, I have struggled with managing my anger. Powell argues it’s important to keep your emotions in check, but that, to some degree, it is unrealistic to think you will never get mad at certain situations. However, he warns against the leader who holds a grudge and decides that he simply "can’t get over it." In fact, great leaders must get over it. More important, they must take responsibility for communicating to those who experienced their anger and, if not apologize, at least explain where the anger was coming from.
When leaders fail to do this, these relationships break down, communication and information stops flowing, and productivity suffers.
It can be done. This particular leadership lesson is simple, but no less important. It goes to attitude and organizational culture. Powell says that too many leaders’ first reaction is to consider why something "can’t" be done, as opposed to believing anything is possible until proven otherwise. The catch is that if people on your team view your initial communication about a new project as pessimistic ("The odds aren’t particularly good that we are going to accomplish XYZ, but let’s give it our best shot") it will have a direct impact on their performance and effort.
When a baseball team is down by three runs in the bottom of the ninth, the job of the manager is to say; "We can do this. Let’s get it done!" Ninth-inning rallies happen all the time. Great teams beat the odds with great leaders communicating that it "can be done." Therefore, communicating with this "can do" approach is a powerful leadership lesson.