Why Leaders Must Be Strong AND Gentle

Back when I started my career (insert Dark Ages joke here), we were always taught that leaders were “strong,” not just in business but in society overall¬—family, religion, politics. However, as I moved through my career, I was fortunate to work with many of what I would consider great leaders (and just as many awful leaders, but that’s for another time.) So gradually, my definition of a great leader slowly evolved. And it wasn’t just me. Many respected authors and researchers began to define strong leaders according to some similar characteristics.

  • They are focused. A laser focus on what matters to the point of single-mindedness.
  • They are clear. Openly clear about what they want to achieve on both specific projects as well as the overall direction of the company.
  • They communicate objectives. The goals and targets are communicated in firm, unmistakable language.
  • They are decisive. They collaborate with their team, but possess the ability to quickly weigh the input and options to make the final decision.
  • They are confident. Typically, I’ve seen great leaders possess a high level of confidence and a touch of individuality.
  • They are resilient. They are more resistant to criticism, but will meet opposition to their ideas and decisions head on.

Recently, I’ve seen a lot of writings about “gentle leadership.” Researchers and leadership authors describe a different set of characteristics for this gentle leader:

  • They are open-minded. They often reflect on what is possible.
  • They are emotionally intelligent. They listen carefully and provide a more nurturing feedback.
  • They welcome opposition and see it as the path to process improvement and an entrepreneurial culture.
  • They make collaborative decisions as often as possible, soliciting the input of their team.
  • They communicate redundantly utilizing different styles and communication vehicles.
  • They empower and delegate, not just with the tactical executions but also the overall responsibilities and decision-making.
  • They build teams both within and without the organization.

Both of these lists lean dangerously toward stereotypes, in my humble opinion. Taking a page from the great leaders I have worked with, I believe the best leaders possess many or all of these characteristics in combination. They simply become more acute given the situation. Unlike many researchers and authors, I also do not believe great leaders are hard-wired, or born with these talents. We’ve seen too many of our clients actually learn the skills needed to provide strong leadership. These traits can be taught.

Interestingly enough, the trend we’ve seen recently when we perform our initial analysis of a company or organization is a demand, from the employees, for leaders who are strong vs. gentle. Based on our follow-ups, we’ve discovered this is most often because of the employees’ changed expectations in the aftermath of the 2008 financial meltdown.

Employees need their leaders to 1) reduce their uncertainty and 2) to help them feel as if they are not moving backwards or standing in one place.

When faced with uncertainty, employees will simply fill in the blanks. And the data they usually fill in is most likely highly inaccurate. So in these circumstances, they feel more urgency for a leader who “takes charge,” who offers clarity about the tasks that need to be completed, and who makes quick decisions. However, these characteristics tend to manifest as extremes in some leaders when the going gets tough, creating employee frustration about their lack of ability to provide input and participate in positive outcomes.

In our experience, we’ve seen a more gentle leadership approach—punctuated with the occasional “strong leadership” qualities—tend to create a culture that produces more sustainable and consistent outcomes. For example, the model we often suggest is a strong leadership at the beginning of organizational initiatives, followed with more gentle tactics as progress is made. It can be challenging to implement, but with training and practical exercises, we’ve seen it create strong, rather than gentle, results.

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