There are so many theories and philosophies of what makes a great leader. I have written about it for several years now. I’ve also had the opportunity to listen to and talk to many leaders about their challenges and frustrations, as well as their secrets of success.
One leader that has always stood out in my mind is Gen. Colin Powell, and I am always impressed by the confidence he maintains in his leadership views. When asked about the essence of leadership he has said, “Being a great leader means sometimes pissing people off.” Really blunt, but so true.
I actually keep a presentation which is called General Powell’s “Leadership Primer,” in which he offers 18 leadership lessons. I won’t go into all of them but the first one on the list is “Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.”
Powell’s point is insightful and profound. Too many of us in leadership positions are too concerned with wanting people to like us and the decisions we make. That is simply not always possible nor preferable.
Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity. You’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset.
Hope is not a plan, particularly for a good leader.
Powell is right. The irony is that when we don’t make the tough choices as leaders because we want to be “nice” to everyone all the time or treat them “equally,” regardless of their performance, we guarantee mediocrity. The fact is, being a great leader requires that sometimes you will make decisions that make people on your team angry. You will have to communicate directly without mincing words that someone’s performance is under par.
Here’s an example: “Steve, we need to talk specifically about how you are not getting the job done and we need to come up with a plan to turn it around quickly. If not, it isn’t going to be good for you or for our team.”
When you communicate with Steve in such a fashion, he is not going to walk out of your office singing your praises. In fact, there is a good chance he goes into his office and text or calls his wife to tell her what a jerk you are.
But what would happen if you, as a leader, didn’t have that conversation with Steve, knowing that his performance had been sub par for so long? What if you chose to communicate by doing nothing and just hoping things got better? Hope is not a plan, particularly for a good leader.
I’m not advocating that you “piss people off” just for the sake of it because you should or you can. That’s just arrogant and contentious. However, “pissing people off” goes with the territory if you are the kind of leader that deals directly and honestly with your people and the situations that must be confronted on a daily basis. The alternative is unacceptable and the outcome of such a passive approach will be much worse for you and for your team.