Hey, Tough Guy

Good leaders know when to crack down.

The recent public showdown between Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and some retired generals cast light on Rumsfeld's tough-guy management style. He can be brash, even brutal, with subordinates, castigating those he believes have weak arguments or have not done their homework. Whether or not Rumsfeld is an effective manager, a surprising number of management experts interviewed by Government Executive say that in an age of touchy-feely consensus building exercises, sometimes it's OK to be a tough guy.

Of course, it's not good to be mean just for the sake of being mean. But experts who have studied leaders say that the most successful ones are kind when they need to be and tough when they need to be. James Clawson, professor of business administration at the University of Virginia's Darden School of Business, says smart leaders adapt their styles depending on the people they're dealing with, or the seriousness of the circumstances. "A confrontational, in-your-face style is a very common business leadership approach," Clawson says. He recalls one business leader who would speak very calmly to one subordinate, but jump up and down, shouting at another. The leader never lost control, but consciously used aggressiveness when he thought it would help hold an employee accountable.

Jim Collins, who examined strong leaders in his best seller Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap . . . and Others Don't (Collins, 2001), says the great bosses were not necessarily aggressive, but they were rigorous. "The best leaders we studied operated with a somewhat Socratic style, and they used questions to gain understanding," Collins says. "For important decisions that rested on their own shoulders, they would tend to ask lots of questions and examine the evidence, seeking the best answers, and then engineer what they believed to be the best decision for the organization. Their goal was always to make the right decision happen, not necessarily to gain consensus."

Collins points to Alan Wurtzel, the former chief executive officer who moved Circuit City from the brink of bankruptcy to a highly profitable company. Wurtzel was known as "the prosecutor" because he zeroed in on a question and wouldn't stop asking it until he got an answer. "You know, like a bulldog, I wouldn't let go until I understood," Collins quoted Wurtzel saying. "Why, why, why?"

One drawback to this style, however, is that managers can use it to bully employees into submission. Collins says the strongest leaders weren't trying to get everyone to agree with them. They were trying to get employees to come up with honest analysis and smart ideas. Donald Kettl, a public administration professor at the University of Pennsylvania, says leaders such as Rumsfeld are successful because they pick a few key goals and then pursue them relentlessly. But if the goals selected are wrong, then an aggressive style can prevent a leader from seeing the real problems facing their agencies. "The world doesn't always cooperate with the problems you've decided to focus on," Kettl says.

The bottom line: You don't have to be nice all the time. But when you get tough, do it with the goal of motivating your employees to find the truth or get better results. And do it not out of anger, but out of a commitment to excellence.

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from GovExec.com.
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by Brocade

    Best of 2016 Federal Forum eBook

    Earlier this summer, Federal and tech industry leaders convened to talk security, machine learning, network modernization, DevOps, and much more at the 2016 Federal Forum. This eBook includes a useful summary highlighting the best content shared at the 2016 Federal Forum to help agencies modernize their network infrastructure.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    GBC Flash Poll Series: Merger & Acquisitions

    Download this GBC Flash Poll to learn more about federal perspectives on the impact of industry consolidation.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    A DevOps Roadmap for the Federal Government

    This GBC Report discusses how DevOps is steadily gaining traction among some of government's leading IT developers and agencies.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.

  • Sponsored by CDW-G

    Joint Enterprise Licensing Agreements

    Read this eBook to learn how defense agencies can achieve savings and efficiencies with an Enterprise Software Agreement.

  • Sponsored by Cloudera

    Government Forum Content Library

    Get all the essential resources needed for effective technology strategies in the federal landscape.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.