Should Leaders Always Be Tough?

June 6, 2023

man lifting weights

Overview: From the perspective of leadership coaching, tough leadership translates to the mental toughness leaders must exhibit when assuming responsibility for the performances of their teams. Tough leadership has nothing to do with being abrasive or acting inappropriately. A lack of leadership toughness can lead to poor decision-making.

Successful leadership is a constant balancing act between our innate need to be liked, the urge to act tough, and the ability to be likable. Let’s break down these concepts to paint an accurate picture of how likeability and toughness factor into the equation of successful and inspirational leadership.

We all have this primal preconception about leadership and leaders. Leaders must be strong; stronger and wiser than those they lead. Thus, if we find ourselves in leadership positions, we get this urge to act the part and appear stronger and tougher than others.

Yes and no. Leaders are, indeed, strong and capable, but not in the primal, physical sense. Abrasiveness is not a leadership asset. On the contrary, it’s a liability.

The Need for Tough Leadership

A lack of toughness in a leadership position combined with the need to be liked is a recipe for disaster. Leadership is not a popularity contest, but some leaders don’t realize that.

From the perspective of leadership coaching, people-pleaser leaders struggle with significant gaps in their leadership abilities for the following reasons.

  • Poor decision-making. Leaders who allow their need to be liked become “too nice” and make suboptimal decisions. They may not lay off people to save their organizations or do enough to weed out problem employees that sabotage the efforts of their coworkers.
  • Avoiding tough conversations. Leaders who lack toughness are reluctant to address issues that arouse negative emotions. Perceiving such issues as divisive, they allow them to fester, poisoning the cultures of their organizations.
  • Letting sub-standard work slip. To preserve their images as leaders people like, “too nice” leaders overlook substandard performances from employees. Some employees exploit this, while others feel weak leadership attitudes undermine their efforts and abilities.
  • Giving suboptimal or irrelevant feedback.  A leader’s job is to clarify expectations and provide guidance in the form of relevant feedback. When this feedback is non-existent or irrelevant, organizational performance suffers.

What Tough Leadership Should Look Like

Leadership coaching understands that tough leaders are likable, but they don’t feel the need to be liked. They don’t want others to perceive them as foul, but they know they must be capable of holding the organizational reins steady.

Here’s how executive coaching perceives tough leadership:

  • The role of instinct. Tough leaders listen to their instincts. They know their guts can sometimes send them useful signals about the leadership potential of employees.
  • Being vulnerable. Tough leaders are tough enough to admit they don’t have all the answers. They know they need others to help them be successful.
  • Seeking out talent. Those who know they need help have solid ideas about where to look for that help. Tough leaders have an eye for people smarter than them, and they know how to convince them to join their teams.
  • Taking responsibility. It takes a certain degree of toughness to take responsibility for one’s actions, and it takes plenty more to take responsibility for the actions of others. Tough leaders understand they’re responsible for the performances of their teams.
  • Facing and addressing personal weaknesses. Tough leaders admit their weaknesses and don’t shy away from stepping out of their comfort zones.

Why Acting Tough Doesn’t Cut It

No one can supplant genuine leadership toughness when acting tough. Without substance, toughness is nothing more than a thin lie. One that hurts leadership and sabotages productivity.

Man wearing sunglasses and yelling.
No one likes having a bully for a leader.

By acting tough, leaders reveal themselves to not be in control. They insult people, undermine trust, fail to set clear goals, and act inappropriately.

Executive coaching knows genuine leadership toughness has nothing to do with being a bully. Based on self-awareness and compassion, it’s a leadership ability that creates clarity, builds trust, and inspires those who witness it in action.

Contact us to learn more about how you can join the IL Movement as a coach or how you can benefit from partnering with us to bring IL Solutions to you and your organization.

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