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How to be an Assertive Leader

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In a recent interview on CNBC, Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo talked about a meeting with Steve Jobs where Jobs told her “If you really feel strongly about something — if you don’t like something people are doing — throw a temper tantrum. Throw things around, because people have got to know that you feel strongly about it.” For some reason that worked for Jobs, but such childish behavior is more likely to discourage a team than it is to energize it.

Some call this assertive leadership, and I suppose it could be described that way, but it’s really insecure leadership that more often discourages innovation. Yes, Jobs was successful at Apple, but all my experience shows that to be an anomaly.

One thing I’ve learned in more than 35 years of leading teams large and small is that effective leaders don’t try to be assertive. That’s because by using effective leadership skills leaders build much more productive teams. If a leader feels a need to be more assertive, they need to examine why. What has led them to believe the team needs more forceful input?

The tantrum method of leadership has more drawbacks than benefits, causing team members to be fearful and stifling innovation and creativity. Effective leaders are those who can help their team succeed. As a rule, teams want to excel and I’ve found there are four actions that will help leaders become more effective and eliminate the need to worry about assertiveness.

  1. Understand and communicate what you really believe. Write a leadership philosophy and make sure the whole team understands it. Spell out what you believe, what you expect, and what your team can expect from you. Then live up to your philosophy.
  2. Communicate clearly. This doesn’t involve shouting or insulting diatribes. It does mean clearly communicating not only what you want them to accomplish, but the limitations as well.
  3. Get mad, then get over it. It’s natural to occasionally get angry – but it’s not OK to act irrationally on that anger. Acknowledge that something has pushed a hot button for you. Take a deep breath (or 10, 20, 30 or more if that’s what it takes) and look for what’s triggering that emotion. Is someone communicating with us in a way that makes us defensive? Are we losing control or do we feel pressured to make a decision too quickly? Understanding the source of the anger is half the battle.
  4. Celebrate failure. I don’t mean throw a party when your stock tanks. Rather, accept failure as an important part of the road to success. Believe it or not, it’s one of the best ways to be an effective leader. If the team is afraid to fail, they will be afraid to try new things. When that happens, it isn’t long before all ideas come from the leader, and the leader seldom has all the good ideas.

Temper tantrums are counter-productive and while I’m not an attorney, I believe throwing things at people could be considered battery. Tantrums also aren’t necessary because leaders who clearly state expectations and goals, leaders who have a strong vision and a passion to accomplish that vision, and leaders who nurture and encourage their teams don’t need to worry about being more assertive.

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