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.

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