The Process of Leadership Requires Tough Love

February 17, 2016

bridgeThe first book we read in my MBA class on Leading Change is “Building the Bridge as You Walk on It” by Robert E. Quinn. The key point of the book is that organizations do not change significantly unless someone inside the organization changes significantly; hence, self-change is the key to organizational change. Ever increasing integrity is the driving force of self-change; the discipline to chose to daily confront the biggest hypocrite you will ever encounter in your organization – the one you see in the mirror.  It’s a brilliant book that applies the systems thinking principle of purposeful emergence across scale to leadership and change.

Toward the very end of the book is a chapter about tough love and leadership that is ripe with wisdom. Here are some of the notes from that chapter that I share with my students:

  • Tough love is the integration of toughness and love; the ability to be both compassionate and assertive.
  • Those who treat us with tough love disturb the habitual way in which we choose to see ourselves by asking tough questions or making tough statements
  • When most people think of tough love, they split the oppositions and focus only on being tougher but forget the importance of also growing in compassion
  • We cannot inform people into tough love. We can only invite others into that creative state when we practice tough love ourselves
  • You must learn as a follower the value of telling others what they need to hear or you will never invite this from others when you become a leader
  • Withholding the truth from others is a selfish, rather than a purposeful posture. Choosing comfort over truth is irresponsible.
  • Selfish people will punish you for telling them the truth; but that does not relieve you of the responsibility to do so. If you don’t learn to practice responsible freedom in tough love then you allow yourself to be enslaved by someone else’s comfort zone.
  • We don’t transform by learning concepts; we transform when we commit to a higher purpose.

It’s clear to me that in order to practice tough love as a leader you have to develop the discipline as a follower. The process of leadership requires authentic relationships where everyone assumes responsibility for giving and receiving honest, purposeful feedback. There is no integrity in playing charades.

At the end of Quinn’s chapter on tough love, he offers a list of helpful hints for practicing the discipline. As I read the list again last night, I was struck by how well they capture the essence of effective leadership.

  • Know the collective result you want to create
  • Know what difficult standards are necessary to create that result
  • Model complete integrity around the standard
  • Hold everyone to the same standard that you are modeling
  • Make no exceptions
  • Let people go if they cannot live the standard
  • No one is more important than the collective good
  • Challenge others to exceed their current capabilities
  • Spend time with people you seek to lead
  • Show genuine concern for their needs
  • Make all topics discussable, including your own behavior

That’s a darn good list of suggestions. Don’t miss the fact that the responsibility to model complete personal integrity to the espoused standards comes before holding anyone else accountable. The only way to ensure you are not making an exception for yourself is to invite others to hold you accountable, just as you would hold them accountable. More than an invitation, it has to be an expectation. It’s irresponsible for any follower to not hold him or herself accountable for helping you hold yourself accountable.

If you really care, then you will find the courage to say what needs to be said. If you never tell the truth, then you really don’t care. You must care if you want to matter.

It’s your responsibility to want to matter. You’re not entitled to matter, you have to earn it by the choices you make on a daily basis.

What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

Related Posts:

It Take Character and Courage to Confront our Integrity Gaps

Change is Hell


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Comments (6)

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  1. Jesse Stoner says:

    I love the image of building a bridge while walking on it. I think it pretty accurately describes the reality of leadership – constructing as we experience, planning as we take action. I like your description of “tough love.” I’ve always thought of is as a parental concept in the past. But your description is about the courage to take a stand when you see an injustice, knowing that many of your peers will push against you. In this way, I see it as not about fighting or pushing, but taking the risk to publicly speak out about injustice. Ranging from the actions of righteous gentiles like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor, during WWII to the stand you took last spring. Much appreciation for you, Bret!

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jesse! Concur with you that it’s not about fighting but about taking the risk to take a stand and allow your voice to be heard. Thanks for sticking with my blog 🙂

  2. Thank you. Brett. Speaking truth to power is difficult. But it is better than projection, which is what you are left with when you let other people define you by their actions, behaviour, or standards.

    Bret L. Simmons Reply:

    Welcome, Hermione. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Bret

  3. Raúl Di Francesco says:

    Thanks for sharing your articles, especially this, it can not be more true what you say.
    Everyday must be a delicate balance between understanding and tough love,however should pre-exist a mutual trust to understand that this come up of the best intentions in order of team development.

  4. Thanks for sharing your thoughts! Bret