Two Indispensable Yet Opposing Leadership Traits How Great Leaders Effectively Relate to People
Great leaders have opposing leadership traits when it comes to how they relate to people effectively. On one hand, they are gracious and gentle. On the other, they are strong and clear.
For me, these two traits have to be continually nurtured and protected because there seems to be an invisible force constantly at work to erode the potency of both skill sets.
This last year, I spoke to an up-and-coming leader in our organization. A group of more seasoned leaders were gathered, and she shared how she felt a had person ignored something she said. The incident made her feel disrespected. She knows our culture—she should not retaliate at that person—but at the same time, she desired to communicate with them. She wanted to know how this could be done effectively.
I told her this is a challenge of all leaders, both new and experienced. A leader’s work, by definition, is mostly with people, and the challenge is always:
- How much do we push others?
- What do we say and when?
- How much do we take in before we respond?
- When can we be forceful?
- When can we be clear and truthful without crushing others?
At any stage of our leadership journey, and in any setting where we may lead, these questions are central to our success. As we garner experience, we begin to learn character traits and acquire skills to help us hone our approach to manage our leadership decisions.
As you go about your journey to help others, I want to encourage you to always think about two camps of thought that must be nurtured. One are the concepts of grace and gentleness. The other are the concepts of strength and truth. We must aim to excel in both. Allow me to share some thoughts about each of these.
Great leaders extend grace. Grace is giving unmerited favor. It is offered when someone does not deserve favor, approval, respect, honor, but we choose give it anyway. Once we are convinced that being gracious is the right way and most effective way to lead people, then there are three stages we must go through, and keep growing in:
- Understanding how to become gracious.
- Knowing how to stay gracious, every day, and in every moment.
- Learning and practicing skills that help us draw boundaries. Otherwise, we will be unable to grow in grace, because if we offer grace and then feel taken advantage of, then we are at risk to stop offering grace as frequently.
Why is grace important to great leadership? Because we are all fallen creatures. We all mess up. That’s why people gravitate to and follow leaders who acknowledge their humanity, who place themselves on the same level as us, and give us undeserved favor.
Abraham Lincoln said that the strongest force on earth is gentleness. President Lincoln was an effective and strong leader. Paul, in the Bible, was another effective and strong leader. If you are familiar with his writings in the Bible, you may know that in Philippians he says, “Let your gentleness be known to all.” (Philippians 4:5-7)
Let me expound on what gentleness is and is not. I don’t see gentleness as speaking softly, looking demure, or appearing weak. Gentleness is when we are:
- Kind in our approach.
- Honorable in our perspective.
- Loving in our spirit.
When you combine these three traits and disciplines, gentleness results. Why is gentleness important to great leadership? Because our innate tendency as humans is to push, shove, yell, and control. We have a core component to who we are that includes fear and self-preservation. Leaders who have resolved to be gentle have committed to subdue these less than noble tendencies.
Grace looks at truth (however ugly it may be), and says, I am going to love, honor, and respect this person. Before you dole out the truth as you see it, remember:
- The truth you see is different from the truth of others see. Remain humble. You could be wrong. I often am.
- What you see or hear is not truth. I love this maxim: Believe nothing you hear and half of what you see. Exercise patience before you react and make a judgement.
How do you embrace the truth and practice it with others? I like to think of truth telling with others as our ability to draw boundaries.
Draw boundaries early and clearly. As I mentioned, boundaries are best within the setting of grace. The key to telling people, “Hold on, this is off limits,” is establishing those boundaries with honesty early on. Don’t wait, and don’t just blurt it out. Look for the right moment.
Don’t be vague. That does not mean we should be harsh. Our choice of words and tone is crucial. Here are two examples of how not to say something, and one example of how to say it. The scenario is a business meeting with clients, in which your account manager comes in wearing a T-shirt made by a charity he won at a ball game.
“Your outfit during the meeting was simply ugly and unprofessional.” (true, but injurious and unkind)
“Your outfit was really cool, creative, and interesting. But could you wear a shirt and tie next time?” (kind, but untrue)
“John, could I give you some feedback on your outfit during today’s meeting? I think you would be received better if you wore a shirt and a tie instead of a T-shirt.” (true and kind)
In most cases, John will understand and change, and be appreciative for the suggestion. But we must be as truthful as we are kind.
When I talk to leaders about grace and gentleness, they often relay to me the challenge of being disrespected or unheard. They wonder how using grace and gentleness can get elicit a better response. It will when leaders communicate with both strength and grace. We cannot be great leaders without grace and gentleness. Likewise, we cannot be great leaders without strength and truth.
Strength demands that we have the courage to do what needs to be done. These are areas in which we must be strong:
- Making difficult decisions about people—without acting as a judge of character. Difficult decisions may be required when deciding to talk to someone who is not in line with the organization’s values or expectations. Or it could be needed when reaching out to change the nature of a relationship. Whatever the situation, we must find the strength to follow through without imposing judgment. One leadership trait I find to be refreshing in a strong leader is wisdom. Wise leaders don’t just apply indiscriminate force and call it strength. They apply strength bathed in wisdom and patience.
- Be prepared to use force, but exercise wisdom to avoid it if possible. A handful of times in my leadership journey, I have had to be forceful. I am always prepared to be forceful, but my aim is to never have to.
Finally, I want to share with you a brief example that happened to me recently. Last week we hired someone to paint our living room. Two days before he was to start, I saw a big sign in our front yard advertising his company. He did not ask our permission to place it there. I was unhappy, and for a moment, I expressed my displeasure to Joanne, my wife. My initial thinking was, “Why would he do that without asking? This is the third time I have hired someone, and they put their signs up on my property.” As soon as I recognized these voices, I applied the grace/gentleness with truth/strength rule.
Grace says: This guy is trying to make a living. I have a business like he does. I know how difficult it is to gain and retain customers. Cut him some slack.
Truth says: This is bothering me. I think it is right for him to at least ask our permission first.
Strength says: I will send him a message to tell him exactly how I feel, knowing full well it could lead to a confrontation, at least in theory.
Gentleness says: Be kind as you present your truth.
I sent him this text: “John, I just saw a sign in our front yard. Did your company put it there?” In response, he apologized and told me to remove it if it was bothering us. We decided to keep it.
My old self would not have said anything, rather just sulked about it. My even older self would have called him and let him have it. Both are responses are poor leadership.
If you want success in your leadership, be intentional to grow in these four areas.
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