By Steve Adubato, PhD

I was coaching a client recently who told me that in her performance evaluation, the manager she reported to told her she needed to be “more assertive” in her leadership style. Interestingly, just a few weeks ago in a communication and leadership skills seminar, one of the participants shared his concern that one of his managers was “too aggressive” in his leadership and that he wanted this manager to tone it down a bit.

It got me thinking about the terms “assertive” and “aggressive” when it comes to overall leadership style. What exactly is assertive and when does it become aggressive to the point where it is a problem?

Instead of debating semantics, here is a practical comparison between the two words that should prove helpful to any professional who must lead others.

--Being an assertive leader is making your point in a concise and direct fashion, sometimes with a strong voice. Assertive leaders leave no doubt in the minds of those around them what they are stating, why they are saying it, where they think the organization needs to go and why. They also communicate with a sense of urgency and provide clear direction. Aggressive leadership can sometimes be harsh in tone that can border on being hostile, creating unnecessary conflict and turmoil.Aggressive leaders are too often poor listeners who take a “my way or the highway” approach to communicating to those around them and are not open to others’ opinions.

–Assertive leaders often begin sentences like this; “I feel strongly that we need to move in XYZ direction because if we do, we can accomplish ABC.” Aggressive leaders often are accusatory in their tone and language: “You dropped the ball; you screwed up. What’s wrong with you?” The problem with this latter approach is that even if you are technically correct, you leave the receiver of this type of message on the defensive. They either fight back or shut down, which are two outcomes we should avoid in our professional and personal communication.

– While not always the case, assertive leaders often try to achieve certain results and solve problems with a mindset that says “we are all in this together.” This leadership approach breeds collaboration and loyalty. Aggressive leaders too often focus on blame, criticism, and worse, humiliation of others, which clearly has a terrible impact on productivity and effectiveness. This leadership style creates a culture of fear and stifles creativity and risk-taking.

– Leaders who are overly aggressive can have a hard time admitting fault, taking responsibility or simply saying, “I’m sorry.” This is because they have a “take no prisoners” approach to business relations as opposed to trying to find a way for everyone to benefit. Assertive leaders are confident and know that when they DO admit their mistakes, apologize, and take responsibility when things go wrong, it only enhances their status as a leader.

Be honest…how would you describe your leadership style? Do you consider yourself assertive or, like me, have there been times that you have led in an aggressive fashion and learned powerful lessons in the process? While none of us are perfect, the really successful leaders never stop learning, growing and taking an honest look at themselves and their interaction with others.

Jody Jaron, Director School of the Garden State Ballet, shares her assertive methods to motivate students.