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Perspectives: Great Leaders Sometimes “Piss People Off”

by Steve Adubato, Ph.D. for NJTV

There are so many theories and philosophies of what makes a great leader.  I have written about it in this space for many years and have talked to leaders of all stripes about their challenges and frustrations, as well as their secrets of success.  But every once in a while you come across a leadership lesson that is undeniably true, and interestingly it was told to me in a public television interview with General Colin Powell many years ago.  At the time, I asked General Powell about the essence of leadership and he said, “Being a great leader means sometimes pissing people off.”  I’ll never forget it.

Ironically, just this past week, I was talking with a client about the challenges of leadership.  I happened to mention the Colin Powell quote to him and he said, “That’s funny, I have that quote hanging right in my office.”  When we walked into his office, there it was.  General Powell’s “Leadership Primer,” in which he offered 18 leadership lessons.  Lesson #1—“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.  Says Powell, “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.”

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: “Jim, 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 Jim 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 texts or calls his wife to tell her what a jerk you are; “Do you believe the nerve of this guy?  How dare he talk to me this way after all the years I’ve given to this place?  I am so peeved.”

But what would happen if you as a leader didn’t have that conversation with Jim, knowing that his performance had been subpar 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 alterative is unacceptable and the outcome of such a passive approach will be much worse for you and for your team.

As a leader, have you ever gotten your people angry by making a very tough decision or communicating with very direct language?  Write to me at sadubato@aol.com.

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