How ‘tough’ should bosses be?

‘Strong, resilient and decisive’ can be code for ‘micromanaging tyrant’.

by Adam Gale
Last Updated: 29 May 2019

If you were profiled on these pages, how would you like to be described? In decades gone by, leaders would likely have hoped to be seen as no-nonsense, effective, straight-talking, decisive, tough, strong – a hard man*, but one who gets results.

Nowadays, that sounds like the biography of grizzled ranch hand from a John Wayne western, not a serious business person. Our leaders fall over themselves to show the extent of their EQ, that they’re collaborative, collegiate and empowering. Starched shirts and shouting are distinctly unfashionable.

It’s debatable whether leaders and managers of yore were ever quite as aggressive as we paint them, or even more whether modern bosses are quite as sensitive and socially aware as they paint themselves. But the values we aspire to nonetheless say a lot about us.

But are we taking our adulation of the softly softly approach a little too far? In a cotton wool world, don't we risk losing that necessary intolerance for mediocrity, that essential ability to hold people to account, to fire as well as inspire? Do we actually need a little bit of John Wayne in the 21st century office? Ever collegiate, Management Today decided to ask what you thought.

Unsurprisingly, no one said that being tough and decisive was necessarily inconsistent with being collaborative and empowering. But you had various ideas about where the balance between the two should lie, and how to achieve it. Here are some of them.

Be courteous

‘Leaders need to act with courtesy,’ says Howard Lewis, founder of networking experience OFFLINE. ‘Don’t mistake courtesy for softness. Indeed, bully boy tactics, in both boardroom and beyond, are a sign of weak leadership.’

Get close

‘Strong, positive leaders are committed to having difficult conversations well,’ says London Business School academic Rebecca Newton. ‘One start-up briefed me recently on the goals for their executive team away-day: "We want to be close enough to fight. We’re happy working together, but we don’t challenge each other much and this is filtering through to the way we lead our teams." This "too-nice-to-fight" culture can be a barrier to growth and realised potential.’

But not too close

‘Being too close to employees can make managing them very difficult, if not impossible.  It can lead to jealousy among employees, accusations of favouritism against the manager and discrimination against the company. The manager can lose the respect of the team, lose the confidence of the employer and ultimately be left fighting for his or her reputation and career,’ argues Jonathan Maude, who heads employment law practice at Vedder Price in London.

Let values be your guide

‘Values need to be cascaded down from the top and permeate all aspects of everyday work life, it is about company culture. It is a leader’s responsibility to instil and guard that culture and its principles. If an employee doesn’t abide by them that’s when the harder decisions need to be made. By being faithful to the company’s principles a leader can make those decisions with clarity and a steady hand,’ says Joerg Nuernberg, CEO of NewBase.

Be clear from day 1

‘The trick is to set the bar extremely high at the first contact with the employee: the interview. I make a point of explaining to any potential employee that, if they join either of my companies, they will work harder than they have ever done before,’ says Sven Hughes, CEO and founder of Global Influence and Verbalisation. ‘As long as the candidate understands that this isn’t bluster, but genuinely describes the way we all work, then there should be no later issues.’

Establish boundaries

‘I recently had to tell an employee who chose not to attend a meeting because they felt their time was better spent elsewhere that that wasn't their choice to make. I very rarely use this kind of tone so that the message gets across without anyone feeling berated. That's not hard,’ says Marcelo Peretti Kuhn, head of strategy at Forever Beta.  

‘Take Captain D Michael Abrashoff and his command of USS Benfold. A key ingredient in his approach to make the worst ship in the US navy the 'Best Damn Ship in the Navy’ was to create a clear delineation between when things were up for debate and when they weren't. Essentially, outside of a combat situation, hierarchy is downplayed and creative thinking is encouraged. When in combat though, hierarchy is not to be questioned.

‘Most projects nowadays will have parts where things are up for debate, parts where they aren't and others that are somewhere in between. But all of this only works when there's a foundation of respect and trust within the team that makes the dynamic work.’

This piece was originally published in October 2017.

*The leaders of yesteryear were mostly male; the stereotypes all were. 


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