Tough Love – a Key for Great Leaders

After nearly six years watching leaders lead and managers manage, I’ve learned a great deal about what works, and what doesn’t. The most important of these lessons is something I learned from some of my clients, and especially from my friend and co-author Gino Wickman. It’s about what some call “tough love,” the ability to balance caring with unwaveringly high standards.

Great leaders have the courage to endure and cause discomfort – even pain – for the greater good of their organizations. They’re willing and able to have the tough conversations that lead to the resolution of pressing issues. When things aren’t working, great leaders see it early and address the issue with the person most responsible right away. They don’t hold back hoping the issue will resolve itself. They don’t allow for excuses – even good ones – to negatively impact the collective results of their organization.

Gino modeled this trait when we were working together on Get a Grip. We had set some realistic but aggressive deadlines, and I vastly underestimated the amount of time required to meet them. To make matters worse, I was also dealing with some difficult personal issues during that time. As a result, my Rock completion rate wasn’t very good, and the project began taking longer than either of us wanted. Had Gino taken the “easy way out,” he might have just let those deadlines slide. He might have lowered his standards – OUR standards – to match reality. After all, I was clearly working hard and in some pain.

Well, what he did instead taught me a lifetime of lessons. First, he made it crystal clear that he cared deeply about me and my personal challenges. He made himself available and helped – or just listened – when I needed that. At the same time, he helped me stay accountable to the high standards we had set for this project. Sometimes this required being uncomfortably tough. He called me out when I failed, he challenged me to be my best when I wasn’t able to do that myself, and he demanded more of me than I thought I had to give at some moments. And while I wasn’t always thrilled with his approach, I was thrilled with the outcomes.

In the end, Get a Grip was finished on time. It’s rights were acquired by a first-class publisher, BenBella Books. We are very proud of the finished product and the feedback we’ve received. I also learned how to be a better leader, and to help my clients become better leaders, because in my career I’ve often been afraid to help people uphold high standards when things get tough.

So thank you Gino, and thanks to all of my clients whose caring and courage serves as a daily inspiration.