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The Danger of Soft Leadership

The definition of good leadership is ever-evolving. And today, the trend is toward more compassionate leadership or servant leadership. And as with every leadership trend, there is a danger of it going too far. In this evolution, the risk is tipping over into soft leadership.

  • Where the expectation of accountability from team members gets lost as we let team members “evolve” or “self-manage.”
  • Where the authority of leaders in setting direction and expectation gets lessened. And,
  • Where tough decisions are delayed or not made under the guise of empathy.

How can leaders strike that balance? Especially as we sit between an employee-focused work environment and a (potentially) looming recession. Let’s break it down.

Accountability and Performance

Recently I had a conversation about a leader who wants to grow their business aggressively while also being reticent to create a culture of accountability. Why? They want a friendly workplace where people want to come to work. And both sound great but having them exist together is challenging on many levels. It’s soft leadership.

Yet, there is a way to get there.

Here’s the wrong way. Among the many norms he created, Jack Welch lauded the idea that you must get rid of your “C-players.” And that makes sense.

Where his ideas go off the rails is building alongside that a perpetual rack and stack system. In his view, once you rid your organization of “C-Players,” you essentially create a new list of C-Players from what were your B-Players. His system forced you always to identify a list of C-Players. I’ve led in that system, and it’s terrible practice over the long term that will hurt your organization and creates shadow systems to scam it.

The better play? Focus your efforts first on your A-Players. Please give them your attention, praise, and reward. Please work with your B-Players to make them A-Players. Coach, educate, and encourage them to turn them into A-Players. And your C-Players? It takes a lot of work to make them B-Players, not to mention A-Players. Perhaps it’s a career or culture mismatch. Your best bet is to move them on with respect and empathy, but don’t delay.

What you don’t do is downgrade your Bs to Cs to fill a void. That’s just short-term thinking and nonsense. 

Soft Leadership Doesn’t Define Workplace Norms

Over the last several years, creating a positive employee culture has become paramount. When fighting for the best team members, you want to make a great place to work. But that does not mean everything goes. You have to establish a set of norms and acceptable behaviors. In fact, setting the tone of your culture starts at the top, with you!

An area that can hurt your workplace is letting the crises and controversies of the outside world infect your workplace. It’s a distraction. And it does nothing for your bottom line or creating a great culture.

In my last workplace, we worked hard to create a great environment. We created a great social hub to build engagement. Among other things, we placed some TVs for breaks. Foolishly, we set the TVs on news channels. As my office was nearby, I heard debates start, grow, and occasionally get heated.

So, I pulled the plug on news channels. Our cultural goal was a team pulling together in the same direction to achieve our vision by servicing our customers at the highest levels. Political debates worked to the exact opposite of it. Were there complaints? Absolutely. But the mission and vision are the thing, and achieving them is the goal. Inviting outside distractions into your workplace is a recipe for discord and slowing down the growth of your business.

Letting Decisions Linger

I’m no economist, and I read a lot. At least some expect tough economic times ahead, including a recession. And that can impact your business dramatically. It will call for making tough choices as you face the future.

On the one hand, you can’t cut your way to success. I’ve done it in corporate America, and I’ve done it in small business. My lesson learned? Cut the things that don’t matter and aren’t helping you achieve the long-term vision for your business. In truth, those things probably crept in as you had success and started letting little things slide. Pet projects, high-end coffee, and nice-to-have collateral and spiffs that you don’t need.

On the other hand, be careful with those things that matter to your vision. The tough choices here are nearly always people related. In some ways, this takes us back to the first section. We should not be carrying C-Players in the organization. If you haven’t dealt with that, do it. Keep you’re A and B players focused. Challenge them to find new ways to grow the business. To build efficiency. To find better ways. You will need them when things turn around, and you won’t get them back if you cut them.

But, sometimes you have no other choice than to make difficult people’s decisions. The only mistake you can make is taking too long to make them. That’s soft leadership.

And when you do make the tough people decisions, I encourage you to:

  • Be fair. Create a matrix to follow for these decisions and stay faithful to it.
  • Be fast. Difficult decisions don’t age well, and if you are slow to act, your people will generate their own stories about the future.
  • Be compassionate when you do have to give people the news. Please get to the point with empathy, do it in a private environment, and give them the best package you can, including references.

From Soft to Decisive Leadership

Leaders, your role is ever-evolving with our culture. Expectations change. But stay focused on your vision, hold your team to high standards, and act decisively and with compassion. These principles will get you through the challenging times ahead.

The definitions of good leadership change and evolve over time, but one thing remains constant: a leader is someone who holds people accountable and sets the tone for how things get done. They need to be able to inspire their team to work towards a common goal and create an environment where everyone feels comfortable taking risks. If you want to improve your leadership skills, set up a call to see how I can work with you. I’ve helped many leaders achieve their goals by teaching them how to lead their teams effectively. Let me do the same for you.