Tough + Love = Great Leadership

Teachings of the Far East explain the concept of yin/yang. In order to achieve balance, and ultimately success, we need to have oppositional forces present and equal. This is obvious in our relationships, as oftentimes opposites attract – personalities, talent areas, skill sets, hobbies, etc. This differentiation between partners is what keeps things interesting and dynamic. Functionally, the same thing happens as you build a team – it doesn’t make sense to have people who all can do the same thing; instead, gather those who work differently from one another to maximize the group’s success. While the yin/yang dynamic is perhaps most obvious with multiple people, the concept works well for our own internal balancing act, too.

As a leader, it’s never been more important to focus on the combination of “tough” and “love” when dealing with your team members. If there’s too much of one or too much of another, the leader becomes an ineffective manager. Think about it – if you’re all tough, you’ve been deemed a jerk boss. The byproduct of this is that you end up with poorly performing employees who are over-stressed and constantly live in fear of whatever you’ll do next. On the other hand, if you’re all love, you have no accountability, which means no results – good campfire songs don’t pay the bills… revenue does.

However, when you combine these two oppositional traits and lead with tough + love, you’re on a path toward success. If people know you have their best interest in mind, they won’t question your motives when you make a suggestion or provide direct feedback. Similarly, if your team members feel like you believe in them, they won’t begrudge the accountability measures you put in place. Those targets (and tracking mechanisms) simply become a way for them to write down all the goals they’ve met, rather than feeling as if they fell short. When it’s clear that you truly want to help them improve, they’ll be willing to stretch themselves and take on a demanding workload, in the name of their own personal growth.

So how can you achieve this yin/yang as a leader?

Set high standards, but with good reason. Make sure your employees know that expectations are high and that their output will be judged at a gold standard. However, also give yourself a sanity check. Don’t assign more work simply for the sake of having done so. Make sure you understand, and have fully explained, the logic behind a task, so that all team members involved have a buy-in to its importance. If they don’t, it will never be completed to the level you’d desire.

Get to know each team member directly.  Make sure that you sit down with every single employee one-on-one regularly for a meeting with just that person as the agenda item. What are his personal career goals in the short term? What does she hope to learn? Where does he need to grow? How much more would she like to take on? How’s life at home? By taking a true interest into each person’s standing (both personally and within the company), your employees will feel more inclined to work toward the goals they laid out, rather than a project you outlined in a team huddle.

Live up to your word. When things don’t happen the way they should have, enact that accountability you had introduced. Likewise, when you’ve promised something for a goal achieved, stand by that. When your team can trust you when you say anything (for better or for worse), they’ll be more willing to stake their career goals on your promises.

Effective leadership involves the artful combination of these seemingly conflicting approaches. It’s not easy to master this delicate balance, but if it’s done right, it can be the driving force of your own progress.