Effective leaders are tough and tender

Everyone agreed George was a tough boss. He was demanding, settling for nothing less than one’s best. He was goal-oriented, charismatic and driven. He pushed when outcomes weren’t up to par; he beamed when they were. He challenged when he knew people were capable of more. He offered up praise, appreciation and thanks. He had his team’s back.

George “got” tough empathy.

Combining empathy with accountability is a unique skill set no leader should be without. In their Harvard Business Review article, Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones define tough empathy as “giving people not necessarily what they want, but what they need to achieve their best.” It’s the ultimate leadership balance beam act between task completion and relationship. Being tough and tender. Having high standards and high touch.

We’ve seen bosses who bark orders without regard to feelings and leave morale as roadkill in the office. On the other hand, we’ve seen bosses who are so tender-hearted we wonder if they have a spine as no one ever receives correction or meaningful feedback.

5 ways for a leader to show tough empathy

Intervene early and constructively. When performance goes awry, sit down and talk with the employee (this is not the time for an email). Let the employee know you have faith in their abilities and affirm the importantance of their contributions to the organization.

Show some love. Celebrate, recognize, appreciate. The file cabinet in the corner doesn’t have feelings, but employees do.

Don’t sugarcoat a one-way message. Provide solid facts, specifics, and examples. If you offer up an impression, define the details that created it. This is the time for dialogue, not a monologue.

Demand more than an “I’ll try” response. Assure the individual commits whole-heartedly to learning, performing and improving. Employees are responsible for their performance; the leader owns holding them consistently accountable.

Communicate that occasionally failing is OK.  Expecting off-the-chart success all the time leads to burnout and snuffs out innovation. Research by professor Amy Edmondson reveals “people in organizations feel psychologically safe when those in power persistently praise, reward, and promote people who have the courage to talk about their doubts, successes, and failures, and who work doggedly to do things better the next time.”

Ready to get your tough empathy on?! 

Photo:   Tough and Tender by Dara Hurt



Vulnerability is a virtue

Wow, what a moment. It stopped me dead in my tracks…in a very good kind of way.

We were two-thirds of the way through a workshop on stepping into one’s power with confidence and grace when she took the floor to share her epiphany. She described a personal weakness that had haunted her for years, something she was peripherally aware of yet firmly believed had no impact on her life or career.

She told the hushed room how — just a few moments ago — she suddenly understood how this weakness had indeed played a major role in how she held herself back.

She radiated joy. Understanding. Self-awareness. The strength of vulnerability.

Are you strong enough, courageous enough, to be vulnerable?

We chase perfection. Wear ourselves out keeping up appearances. Faking it until we make it. Are you ready to jump off the hamster wheel and admit your soft spots?

1. Acknowledge that sometimes the best answer is “I don’t know.” The world is awash with data, statistics, references, resources, etc.. Keeping up is impossible. It’s a sign of strength to say you don’t have the answer but will get one.

2. Admit to something you’re not good at. A gal pal recently teased her colleague Karen about the plain vanilla formatted Excel spreadsheet she had shared with the group. Karen ‘fessed up that going beyond the basics in Excel was way beyond her skills, and my pal generously offered her help. Karen could have covered up her lack of knowledge with a flimsy excuse that she didn’t take the time to make the document look nice, but how untrue and hollow that would have been. Now the two of them have the opportunity to learn and share together.

3. Confess to what you don’t like. If long emails, endless meetings or coffee gatherings aren’t your thing, say so and offer an alternative. Don’t suffer in silent resentment, tactfully speak up.

4. Share you scares you. Driving across bridges scares the beejeebers out of me. It would take a crowbar to pry my fingers off the steering wheel. At first I was hesitant to tell my passengers of my fears, afraid they would think me weak and silly. Now I warn those in the car with me that they’ll see me clutch the steering wheel, stare straight ahead and not breathe until we’re safely across. No one thinks less of me, although I do get teased about why I keep moving to cities with lots of bridges.

5. Shine a light on what is dark or goes bump in the night for you. Nearly ten years ago, a boss described me as Aunt Polly; and his words troubled me for years. I immediately got the chauvinistic overtones but there was something more to it that I couldn’t put my finger on. It wasn’t until I shared how his words were velcro’d into my mind that the answers came. I had to be weak before I could be strong.

Are you ready to get your vulnerability on?

Image courtesy of Let’s Graph



6 ways to build a supportive environment for giving feedback

When starting your own big thing, you’ll encounter times when giving feedback is necessary. When doing so, keep in mind what Jack R. Gibb calls supportive behaviors.  Using this supportive approach allows you to create a safe climate so defensive responses are reduced.

Professor Gibb has this to say about defensive behaviors:

“Defensive behavior is defined as that behavior which occurs when an individual perceives threat or anticipates threat in the group. The person who behaves defensively, even though he also gives some attention to the common task, devotes an appreciable portion of his energy to defending himself. Besides talking about the topic, he thinks about how he appears to others, how he may be seen more favorably, how he may win, dominate, impress, or escape punishment, and.or how he may avoid or mitigate a perceived or an anticipated attack.

Such inner feelings and outward acts tend to create similarly defensive postures in others; and, if unchecked, the ensuing circular response becomes increasingly destructive. Defensive behavior, in short, endangers defensive listening, and this in turn produces postural, facial, and verbal cues which raise the defense level of the original communicator.”

6 ways to build a supportive environment for giving feedback

Description. Focus on describing very specific behavior so the person can repeat the behavior if it’s positive or isolate it if it’s negative. Be non-judgmental.

Problem Orientation. Focus on the task not on the person! Most importantly, focus on behaviors they can change versus labeling them “good” or “bad.”

Spontaneity. Give feedback immediately when you see the behavior, and make it relevant. Assure you don’t have any hidden agendas.

Empathy. Make sure you show your concern for others. Take the perspective of the person to whom you’re giving the feedback.

Equality. Own your comments, yet be willing to participate with the other person to define the problem. Come from a place of equality by de-emphasizing differences in power and/or ability.

Provisionalism. Be tentative and flexible. Demonstrate your willingness to consider alternate points of view and courses of action.  Use phrases like: “We could…One way we might do that is…or I think this is what is happening.” Remember things are not always what they seem.

Give positive feedback when you can and always give feedback because it truly is a gift.

Image from TW Training. See more of Amy’s insights at StartBIG.



Be authentically real but not rude

I’m guest posting over at the Lead Change Group…a place where you’ll regularly find lots of good insights, especially into character-based leadership and beginning a leadership revolution.

Gene was upset with his new team’s quarterly business results, and his withering criticism of their performance during the staff meeting had brought a stunned hush to the room. Not one of the ten people sitting around the table had been exempt from having their deficiencies cruelly described and even mocked during the meeting. As he strode from the room, Gene mentally congratulated himself for telling it like it was. He prided himself on being authentic.

Have you ever worked for a boss like Gene? One who confused realness with rudeness?

The word authenticity has its roots in the Greek philosophy of to thine own self be true, and is one of the hallmarks of good leadership. Gene’s behaviors went awry, however, because he failed to consider that truly authentic leaders are “aware of the context in which they operate” (Avolio, Luthans and Walumbwa, 2004) because “authenticity is a quality that others must attribute to you” (Goffee and Jones, 2005).

Authenticity, like leadership, is relational. It doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It begins with you, requiring self-awareness, self-regulation and self-discipline. Under the guise of being genuine, one shouldn’t blurt out those first unfiltered thoughts. Transparency can come with tact.

3 rules of the road for leaders to be authentically real without being rude

Be candid without being insensitive. Providing forthright feedback is critical for career development, yet one doesn’t have to shred another’s self-confidence when doing so. While you may think what someone did was stupid and laughable, using those words only makes others defensive. When they become defensive, they close off, thinking you’re a jerk rather than focusing on what they need to change. Authentic leaders speak their truth yet deliver constructive, concise and compassionate feedback that leaves self-respect intact.

Have a strong opinion without being judgmental and unyielding. Nowhere is it written that others must perpetually agree with your point of view. Others seeing things differently than you do doesn’t make them wrong. Before you categorize someone as being difficult, determine if they might not be thinking the same about you. Authentic character-based leaders accept differing positions with positive unconditional regard, practicing Ben Zander’s Art of Possibility Rule #6: don’t take yourself so seriously. They don’t use authenticity as a mask for rigidity.

Be true to your nature while keeping possibilities open. We all have a default setting where we feel most comfortable. Yet using that “take me as I am” mindset limits creativity, innovation and communication; plus it breeds arrogance, fosters stereotypes and perpetuates biases. Many options were open to Gene for sharing his performance concerns with his team without publicly belittling them. Tactfully voicing his disappointment, expressing his desire for better results, and inviting input would have yielded a more productive outcome. Authentic character-based leaders look for new solutions that still align with their values.

Layering in thoughtfulness when dealing with others doesn’t make one inauthentic. Rather, it shows strength of character and demonstrates real self-control in leading yourself so you can lead others.

What say you?





Photography: Light and Shadow by Fan Ho



Weekly Leadership Reading

The BIG team enjoyed these posts this past week and hope you do, too!

Why Smart People Deny Climate Change (David Berreby on BigThink)

An article about climate change in a list of leadership reading…hmmm, you might be thinking. There are a couple behavioral nuggets in the research cited here with direct application to leadership and how we get all mired in thinking we’re right and that those who don’t agree with us are wrong. “We needn’t accept every damn fool argument that comes down the road, but we do need to accept that we’re all inclined to protect damn fool arguments that are associated with our identities.”

Managing Authenticity: The Great Paradox of Leadership (Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, Harvard Business Review December 2005)

The BIG team is on tear about leaders who believe being authentic is a license to be rude and who think being tactful is being manipulative. If you’re struggling to build and maintain authenticity, you’ll enjoy the three steps the authors outline as a place to get started: get to know yourself and your origins better, get to know others better, and better connect to the organizational context.

Stuckness is the Heart of Change (Dan Oestreich on Unfolding Leadership)

If you lead a team that’s stuck in passive-aggressive behavior, you’ll benefit from Dan’s suggestions for moving the situation off-center to regain direction, momentum and focus.

Stereotyping: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Steve Petermann on Telic Thoughts)

This intriguing post addresses the stereotype that all stereotypes are bad. Some fascinating stuff here.

12 Most Destructive Management Behaviors (Shawn Murphy on Teamster)

Do a self-audit: if you’re guilty of doing any of the 12 behaviors Shawn lists here, get thee to a coach, a friend, someone who will guide and assist you in getting your leadership actions back on track.

Revisit what you might be taking for granted. “The sun shines and warms and lights us and we have no curiosity to know why this is so; but we ask the reason of all evil, of pain, and hunger, and mosquitoes and silly people.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Here’s to a week of inspiring 7C performance at the intersection of the art of leadership and the science of business!

Image from Dave Jenson on Leadership



12 reasons you aren’t getting promoted

You’ve been angling for the big promotion for almost a year now, but no luck.  You’re more than a little frustrated since others are moving up the career ladder and leaving you behind. Of course there’s the possibility that external factors (holding the line on headcount, budget concerns, etc.) are limiting the number of promotions in your organization. Yet the biggest single factor in determining promotion readiness is…you.

Might you be sabotaging yourself with one (or more) of these twelve career-limiting behaviors?

1. Being the lone ranger

You know you’re smart, technically brilliant, even, and work aggressively to get every special project assignment. You highlight your skills at every opportunity, perpetually reminding your boss of what you - and you alone - have accomplished. You’ve been known (why tactfully, of course) to throw a colleague under the bus when it appeared they might be selected for the plum assignment over you.  And every once in a while, you do wonder why no one invites you to lunch.

2. Squeaky wheel is your middle name

Your boss can count on you to be the first to raise your hand in the staff meeting and point out the three reasons why the new sales program won’t work. Everyone in the HR department knows your name, and they regularly tease you about putting the suggestion box right your desktop. You have the emails for everyone on the executive team and regularly send them messages about their latest mis-steps.

3. Listening skills aren’t your strong suit

You’re known for asking someone a question - and then answering it yourself. You always volunteer to be the speaker or facilitator; and if you aren’t selected, you figure out a way to co-opt the agenda so you can share your ideas anyway.

4. You think dress codes are for wimps.

Hey, if customers and the folks on the executive floor don’t like your piercings and tattoos, well, that’s just their problem, not yours.

5. Your plan is to get the needed skills once you get the promotion.

You’re busy, so who has the time to take classes, volunteer, read books or work with a mentor. You know you’re a fast learner and will quickly pick up what you need to know once the promotion is yours.

6.  No time to network.

All that brown nose stuff isn’t your cup of tea. You think going to company functions, trade association meetings and industry conferences is a prime waste of time. You know your work speaks for itself, why should you bother to interrupt it?

7. Your work ethic is so-so.

You do just enough to get by and have occasionally missed a deadline or two. People know to not get in your way come 5:01 PM since you’re always the first out the door every day. Asking for more responsibilities isn’t something you’ve ever done or intend to do.

8. You tell people you deserve to be promoted because you’ve paid your dues.

You’ve put in your time with the organization; three years is ample time for them to recognize your brilliance and reward you.  You’re allergic to helping out a colleague and figure the newbies can learn the job on their own since that’s how you did it.

9. Getting to know the company culture is a waste of time.

You think culture is one of those HR buzzwords that needs to be buried. You’ve got better things to do than determine the ins and outs of office politics or learn the company history.

10. You communicate when it’s convenient and makes sense only for you.

Everybody knows meetings are a waste of time, so you can’t remember when you attended your last one. Answering emails and returning phones isn’t on your radar screen. You believe the higher-ups aren’t really interested in what you have to say anyway, so why bother to participate.

11. Your boss is a waste of time.

It’s totally unclear to you how your boss got to be your boss. You’re way smarter than he is and have occasionally pointed this out, usually in a public venue.  You barely listen to the feedback she shares in performance reviews. You’re the first to slam his performance around the water cooler.

12. Building relationships isn’t what you get paid to do.

Getting the job done is what you’re paid to do, not building connections or making friends with your colleagues. All that warm, fuzzy stuff is a waste of time. You’ve never attended an office potluck or birthday party. Whose got time for idle chit-chat when there’s work to be done?

Image from Read Solutions Group





Do the Positive; Avoid the Negative

Amy's horse, Poppy

As a little girl I dreamed of owning a horse but, alas, my parents didn’t share my dream. I was lucky enough to grow up near a horse farm so I was able to be around horses as a child. I always thought someday I would own a horse; but as I became an adult, my priorities were raising kids and working so I never got around to owning a horse.

Now as a forty-five year old woman, it’s finally that someday and I am living that little girl dream with my horse Poppy. Because it has been such a long time since I ridden a horse, I hired Lori, a riding instructor. During my horseback riding lessons, I’m often surprised to hear Lori coaching me on the same items that I work with for my corporate coaching clients.

Just last week Lori instructed me to make Poppy trot whenever he was behaving poorly. You see, every time Poppy and I passed the barn door he would pull on the reigns and act spooky. Lori coached me to make Poppy focus on some positive behavior so he won’t think about what’s scaring him. She says I need to make him trot so he’ll forget what’s making him nervous and stop his negative behavior of pulling on the reigns!

Focus on the doing the positive versus the negative

Earlier that very day I had said something very similar to a coaching client. My client, an accomplished salesperson, was working on cracking a tough account. She was worried because this account had issues with a product she had sold them earlier in the year. As we were preparing for her sales visit, she mentioned that when she gets nervous she tends to talk a great deal. She was concerned because she knew she would be nervous on this visit.

“What’s the opposite of talking too much?” I asked her.

“Listening well,” she replied.

“What things do you do when you listen well?” I asked.

“I ask questions and take notes,” she replied.

We then made an elaborate question guide and note-taking instrument. I told her to focus on the doing the positive (listening) versus the negative (talking to much)!

It is a simple lesson, really, when we put energy into what we do want to have happen because it takes the energy away from what we don’t want to have happen. This is true for Poppy as well as for all of us!

My question to all of you is what do you put energy into? Is there anything negative you are doing that you could avoid by putting energy into the positive?


You gotta care for yourself so you can lead

You know how busy you get ascending that ladder of success – the constant swirl of activity focused on the business, your team, your department, results and outcomes. Time for yourself? Ah, we’ll try to work that in later. And that later never happens.

In the mid-1990’s I landed my first VP role, overseeing 2800 employees in two states. For the first several months after the promotion, it was a mad dash of 80 hour work weeks and frenetic scrambling to make everything happen. Then two firsts occurred in my life: my very first 360 assessment followed by a sick leave.

The 360 feedback from my direct report team was cosmic two-by-four whack number one: you are an amazing leader but you make us exhausted and frustrated in trying to keep up with you. Teach us what you know, show us the way and then let us make it happen. What an epiphany – I had been so busy doing, trying to make my post-promotion mark, that I had forgotten “to be” and to lead, not perpetually do.

The second cosmic two-by-four whack quickly followed. That neck pain I’d been ignoring for months became jack-hammer unbearable and produced a new problem – the inability to grasp anything in my hands. Using a keyboard wasn’t possible nor was feeding myself (not an unreasonable antidote, I figured, for failing to maintain a regular exercise program…who had time for that?!). The neurosurgeon declared my herniated disk the largest he had ever seen (always the over-achiever!). Surgery – and recovery time – was the only solution.

The gift of feedback from my team coupled with the sick leave were humbling yet liberating personal and professional events. I learned the value of setting the tone and direction for my team but then stepping aside so they had ownership, responsibility and accountability – as well as the glow of success and the insights from failure.

I learned the value of self-care. A Harvard Business Review article on the “corporate athlete” totally resonated with me and influenced my thinking about relaxing. The gist of the article was to train for work like an athlete trains for their sport, focusing on one’s mental, emotional, physical and spiritual health. To that end, I worked with both a nutritionist and a personal trainer to develop eating and exercise programs that worked for me. I adopted hobbies, reading, volunteering and other activities that enriched my mind and my soul.

At work, I created an engaging office environment with beautiful black-and-white photography on the walls, a desktop Zen sand garden, a small gurgling fountain and a small pile of toys close at hand. I learned to not ignore the early warning signs of stress. I took quick walks around the office, using that time to refocus and connect with others.

It took not one, but two, cosmic two-by-fours to capture my attention and get me focused on taking care of myself so I can more effectively nurture others. This quote from Ann Richards, former governor of Texas, keeps me on track: “If you think taking care of yourself is selfish, change your mind. If you don’t, you’re simply ducking your responsibilities.”

Schedule time for you…starting today!

This post first appeared on Random Acts of Leadership. Art by C. Gregory




Solving Cross-Cultural Communication Problems

Today’s guest post is from Ethan F. Becker, co-author of “Mastering Communication at Work” (McGraw-Hill) and President of The Speech Improvement Company.

Why isn’t your international business thriving? Why are you still running into problems with your international counterparts telling you “yes” one day and then not following through the next? After working with clients in South East Asia since the 1990’s, living in Malaysia with my family for almost a year, conducting research, and coaching senior leaders in some of the area’s largest organizations, I’ve gained insight into the conundrum facing so many international teams: problems with cross-cultural communication. I’ve explored both the communication psyche of senior level executives and the perspectives of multiple organizational levels of employees.  Doing so, I’ve discovered the root of many of these problems as well as a simple solution.  

The Problem

Many issues with cross-cultural communications arise from breakdowns in verbal and body language. Consider:

  • A manager from India who is speaking to a colleague from the United States may come across as condescending and arrogant without knowing he is conveying that attitude. The Indian feels he is simply showing confidence; to his American colleague, he is being offensive. The American doesn’t respect the manager. How likely is it that the two can form a productive working relationship?
  • A man from Singapore meets with a woman from the United States, and they discuss research. To him, research means that if three people agree on a topic, it’s a fact. To the female, research means paying a firm $50,000 to call and poll people for a month. They leave their meeting in agreement that they will research a new product and then go to market with it.  However, they never discuss the meaning of the term research.” What do you think will happen when they meet again at the end of the month for a progress check?
  • A manager from Germany delegates a critical job to an Asian subordinate. Upon the due date, the work is not done.

“Where is the work?” asks the manager.

“It’s on my desk,” replies the subordinate.

“Is it done?” queries the manager.

“Yes,” replies the subordinate. “

“Can I have it?” asks the manager.

“Yes,” replies the subordinate. “

“So where is it?”

“On my desk.”

“So why is it on your desk?”

“Because I’m still working on it,” replies the subordinate.”

“But you said it was done!” exclaims the manager.”

“Yes.” Replies the subordinate.” At which point the manager became frustrated, associating the “yes” replies and the absence of work deception or incompetence. The reality here was the subordinate was fearful of having to share bad news with a source of authority. How can the German manager foster an environment where the Asian subordinate is comfortable enough to transcend her upbringing about disappointing authority and being honest?

  • A woman from Malaysia meets with a man from England to design an event for their company. The man from England discusses the “take-aways” from the event, meaning the lessons people learn and retain. The woman from Malaysia believes “take-aways” are the hand-outs and gifts people take away from the event. Do you think the meeting is a productive one or simply causes confusion?

The Fix

There’s a three-part fix for cross-cultural communication problems:

1. Paraphrase. Repeat what others say in your own words to confirm your understanding.

2. Define terms. When it’s your turn to speak, invest time in creating common definitions of terms; and it’s okay to stop the flow of the meeting to do so. Taking time upfront to define terms and meaning saves time and energy later on. Be patient, and plan for extra time for this.

3. Never assume. Don’t take it for granted that everyone uses terms in the same way. Tone of voice may suggest understanding, but that isn’t proof that both of you are on the same page.  Always double-check.

It’s true that communication problems can crop up in non-multicultural environments as well. Yet in multicultural environments, the chance of communication problems is significantly worse. However, if you are prepared, you can avoid costly communication breakdowns and strengthen productivity by using these three simple steps.

Pay attention to the fix, and you’ll thrive. Don’t use them, and you’re wasting valuable time.


Weekly Leadership Reading

These items intrigued the BIG team this past week. Reflec, then lead BIG, think BIG, dream BIG and be BIG.

Embracing Failure (Bruce Lynn, Leadership and Management / Turning Adversity to Advantage)

Three insights for embracing failure + great quotes + reading resources = good post to bolster your confidence and courage to pick yourself up and try again instead of giving up.

The trouble with big companies… (Hugh MacLeod, Gapingvoid)

Many times less is more; and for people who have worked in super large corporations where you’re little more than a number, well, this cartoon is a blast.

The Power Paradox (Dacher Keltner, Greater Good)

“True power requires modesty and empathy, not force and coercion. But what people want from leaders—social intelligence—is what is damaged by the experience of power.” Dacher offers three myths of power to be overcome so we can promote a “different model of power, one rooted in social intelligence, responsibility, and cooperation.”

10 Mistakes Every Leader Should Make (and learn from) before They Die (Dan McCarthy, Great Leadership)

In this timeless post, Dan lists ten teachable moments for leaders who are willing to “take a risk – fall down – pick themselves up and dust themselves off – reflect on what they’ve learned – learn new skills and behaviors, and incorporate them into their leadership repertoire.”

The Myth of Potential (Mike Myatt, N2Growth)

If you considering, even a smidge, of resting on your “potential” - don’t, says Mike. “The cold hard truth is you’re not special because of your potential, you’re special because of your dogged pursuit of your potential, and you’re even more special when you achieve your potential.”

Thoughts on our “immunity to change” from Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey: “That ‘change makes us uncomfortable’ is now one of the most widely promoted, widely accepted, and under-considered half-truths around…. [I]t is not change by itself that makes us uncomfortable; it is not even change that involves taking on something very difficult. Rather, it is change that leaves us feeling defenseless before the dangers we ‘know’ to be present that causes us anxiety.”