One of the challenges I see managers struggling with is finding a balance in their Leadership Style that works for them on a consistent basis without causing a great deal of internal strife.  They question how hard or soft they should be, should they be liked, are they coming off as a bitch, or how can they be more demanding and still keep good morale.  These are big questions and refining your Leadership Style can take years, but let me at least lay down some basic principles and help by debunking some management theory myths.

Today we have a world focused on cooperation, on consensus and collaboration, on teamwork, etc.  These have their place among management techniques, but not in forming your Leadership Style.  So start by realizing that good leadership does not come from reaching a consensus or through negotiations with employees about how you should lead.    Good Leadership in not situational.  Leadership stands tall, grounded in solid Values which you epitomize every day.

Being an effective Leader is about Respect.  Your team will deliver results for you only if they respect you.  They may like you or even love you, but these emotions, by themselves, are only self-serving, feel good propositions feeding your ego.  It takes respect to drive sustainable results.  And this is what your job is about – Sustainable Results!

My first rule is, “Leaders must be Tough.” No one is going to follow a wimp into battle.  A leader who cannot deal with adversity and difficulty while keeping their cool and delivering solutions will quickly be disregarded by the team.  And even worse, a Leader who does not know where he stands will find himself standing alone.  There is no place for wimps in the Leadership World.  I bet every teacher, coach, boss or friend you ever respected (not just liked) was tough.  Some of them may have been dynamic and some of them might have been quite souls, but they were tough.   They expected more out of you, they expected your best and you gave it to them.  Ever wonder why?

Many managers get off track right away.  They buy into the “false choice” of “mean or nice”, our first myth.  Some assume you have to yell at people, keep them down, criticize them, never compliment, etc.  In short they assume you have to be “mean”.  Those who decide to take the “mean” route quickly alienate people who then take every opportunity to help him fail.  At best this technique gets short-term results from a resentful group of people.  Not wanting to be mean, others take the nice route, always empathizing with their team’s problems and failings believing they must be doing their best.  They want to be friends with their team.  These managers, who take the “nice” route, are constantly run over and are burdened with the internal struggle between wanting to be liked and the feeling of being taken advantage of.  Leadership Toughness is not about “mean or nice.”

When I am teaching this lesson to frustrated managers, they usually jump in about here and say, “Yes, Yes; Tough but Fair right?”  Wrong! Here is where we have to debunk the second myth of Leadership.  The word “fair” is a “straw man argument”.  You should eliminate the word “fair” from your vocabulary this instant.  Fair assumes and implies there is some universal set of principles and values which every single person sees the same way and agrees on.  Really?  Fair doesn’t exist.  Fair is filled with self perception, self fulfillment, and self-interest.  Even a third-party deciding an issue on the basis of “fair” will interject bias and belief systems which may be based in his own personal interpretation of these  “not so” universal truths.  I have seen employees use “fair” as a very effective weapon against accountability over and over again.  Next time you hear the word used, freeze the conversation and study the tactic.  Once you see how it is clearly being used as a manipulation, you’ll be able to avoid this Leadership pit fall.

A Leader must have knowledge, skills, abilities and experience but Respect is built (not earned) through the tough application of three main values:

Setting Expectations



A Leader must set Expectations.  They must be clear and understood by everyone on your team.  If you read my article, Building the A- Team, you will remember the concept of establishing attributes which an employee “must have” if they are to be on your A-Team.  This is where expectations from a Leader begin.  These A-Team Expectations must be entrenched in your culture.  They are non-negotiable, mandatory requirements of being a part of your team.  If one of the A-Team Expectations is “Work Ethic” and everyone understands it, then as the Leader you are obligated to require this.  No consensus – No Collaboration! It is a requirement!  The first question I ask a manager who is complaining about their group’s performance or attitude is, “What are your expectations of the team.  How clear have you made these?”  Often we end up making a list and developing a plan to reintroduce the expectations to the group.  Making up ground in this area can be difficult, so better to start early with your group and avoid what may be perceived as a re-negotiation later.  Talk about expectations everyday and openly as if they are a good thing.  Get them out of your wishful mind, off of the piece of paper, and into everyday conversations. There is nothing wrong with looking your team straight in the eye and saying, “Team, this is going to be a difficult task and I expect everyone to give me their best.”  Take pride in your expectations and your team will too!

Secondly, you must be honest.  Does this sound easy?  It is not, and it is a major road block to a high performing team.  Managers ask me all of the time how I am able to have difficult and direct conversations with people.  They are concerned with being “mean” again.  I explain they must refocus their paradigm.  Instead of the “nice or mean” false choice, I ask them if they would like to be an honest or dishonest person.  Of course, honest is the answer. Honesty is most likely even one of the expectations of your team.  But being honest is uncomfortable.  Even with our best friends we can find ourselves holding back so as to not offend them.  Or the classic, “No Honey, that new dress doesn’t look too tight on you.”  If it is this hard with people who are close to us, how are you to be honest with those who work for you.  Honesty involves a degree of conflict.  Good leaders are comfortable with conflict.  Remember, being a Leader takes toughness.

Most people make the mistake of jumping to the extreme; to something called “brutal honesty.”  Does this sound like a good idea?  It may be an easy way out, but anything “brutal” is going to be met with an equally brutal defense and the message will be lost.  Honesty must come from a place of caring.  You have to sincerely want to help the person be better and grow so they can realize their personal success.  If you are honest and sincere; if you really care about helping and if you can talk about where clear and established expectations aren’t being met, you will see a rapid positive improvement from the A-Player.  If you don’t, read my article, Building the A-Team, once again.  You are dealing with a C-Player.  Remove them.

There is a flip side to the difficulty of the Honesty proposition.  Some people have a difficult time “paying” a compliment (does it really cost anything) and saying “good job” to a team member.  Be tough and get it out.  In fact never miss an opportunity to acknowledge where someone has exceeded expectations.  As children we were told how well we were doing all of the time.  As adults we have become desensitized and have learned not to expect it.   If you want to see someone really get fired up and charge out of the room ready to go through walls for you, sit them down and use my secret phrase, “I AM REALLY PROUD OF YOU.”  Most people haven’t heard this spoken to them since they were thirteen years old.  Watch them beam!


The third foundation to building respect as a Leader is Commitment.  Do not confuse this with another management myth called “consistent”.   The myth that managers must be consistent is a sub-category under the fairness scheme.  And by now you know how I feel about “fair”.  The idea that a manager is supposed to treat all similar situations the same would deprive him of a key Leadership trait which he must possess – Judgment.   If an A-Player comes in three days in row late because of personal problems, you are not going to treat it the same way as a marginal employee who can’t get to work on time.   I know; not fair, right?

A manager focuses on managing situations.  A-Leader focuses on reinforcing and uplifting Values.  Here is where Commitment comes in.  You must be 100% committed to your expectations.  They are not some-time things.  Your team can never doubt how serious you are about what you expect.  You can’t joke about them, you can’t criticize upper management’s dealings with them, and you cannot join around the water cooler and listen to any dissension about them.  Your Expectations and Values must be your Code.  You need to live them even when it is tough to do so.  Your future as a Leader depends on it.

You also need to be committed to the success of your team.  Not just as a group, but as individuals.  They need to know you are in their corner, if you want them to come out fighting for you.  If you want to raise the bar with them, meet with them one on one and tell them you are committed to their success and you will consider any failure of theirs a personal failure as well.  Discuss their role in meeting your expectations.  Make it personal.  Real Commitment has to be “personal” for it to matter.

Now remember that teacher, coach or boss you respected so much.  Remember how you knew exactly what you were supposed to do.  How you were expected to give your very best all of the time.  How they challenged your very best with an honest “kick in the butt” and lifted your spirits with that simple “pat on the back”.  Remember their strength, their commitment to what they taught and what they expected…and to your personal success.  Aren’t they the ones who you still talk about years later?  Wouldn’t you go back to work for them in a second and even be better this time around?  Remember how tough they were!  These were the Street Smart Leaders in your life.