Good Leaders: Tough and Tender

Everyone agreed George was a tough boss. He was demanding, settling for nothing less than one's best. He was goal-oriented, charismatic and driven. He pushed when outcomes weren't up to par; he beamed when they were. He challenged when he knew people were capable of more. He offered up praise, appreciation and thanks. He had his team's back.

George "got" tough empathy.

Combining empathy with accountability is a unique skill set no leader should be without. In their Harvard Business Review article, Why Should Anyone Be Led By You?, Robert Goffee and Gareth Jones define tough empathy as "giving people not necessarily what they want, but what they need to achieve their best." It's the ultimate leadership balance beam act between task completion and relationship. Being tough and tender. Having high standards and high touch.

We've seen bosses who bark orders without regard to feelings, guessing they must eat babies for breakfast because they're so uncaring. On the other hand, we've seen bosses who are so tender-hearted we wonder if they have a spine as no one ever receives correction or meaningful feedback.

So what must a leader do to demonstrate tough empathy?


Intervene early and constructively. When performance goes awry, sit down and talk with the employee (this is not the time for an email). Let the employee know you believe in them and how important their contributions are to the organization.


Don’t sugarcoat a one-way message. Provide solid facts, specifics, and examples. If you offer up an impression, define the details that created it. This is the time for dialogue.


Don’t settle for an “I’ll try” response. Assure the individual commits whole-heartedly to learning, performing and improving. They own and are responsible for their performance; the leader owns holding them consistently accountable.


Show some love. Celebrate, recognize, appreciate. The file cabinet in the corner doesn’t have feelings, but employees do.


Let it be OK for people to fail (occasionally). Expecting success every time leads to mediocrity and snuffs out innovation. Research by professor Amy Edmondson reveals “people in organizations feel psychologically safe when those in power persistently praise, reward, and promote people who have the courage to talk about their doubts, successes, and failures, and who work doggedly to do things better the next time.”

Duality is the new reality. Practice both accountability and positive people support. Tough empathy belongs in every leader’s toolkit.

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