Thursday Thoughts on Leadership: Leaders Must Have a Hard Edge

In sports or in any results driven business like ours, some leaders find it necessary to constantly utilize a heavy-handed approach with their team members to get results. While this may work in the short term, it is almost impossible to sustain and keep a healthy productive work environment. This approach was famously portrayed by Alec Baldwin in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross, a film that depicts the lives of four real estate salesmen and what happens when the corporate office sends a productivity expert to increase sales in part by announcing a new contest in the office. We all remember the “prizes” in that first sales meeting. First prize was a Cadillac Eldorado; second prize, was steak knives; third prize was “you’re fired.” While obviously exaggerated for Hollywood, it rings true in many professions where leadership only understands the effect of the whip and not the carrot. The leader who fails to show compassion for his team is doomed to fail. Having said that, I also recognized that a leader needs a hard edge and it must come out on occasion. Pat Reilly, in his book, The Winner Within, referred to it as a TI (temporary insanity). He explained it in the following manner in The Temporary Insanity Textbook:

  • A leader’s aggressive outburst is not an explosion, nor is it a regular or predictable event.
  • It is the art of being angry at the right time, to the right degree, with the right people.
  • TI requires plenty of advanced thought – a real and focused mental plan, not emotion-driven monologue.
  • A dose of TI demands a rapid follow-up of compassion.
  • The TI leader should always send out someone to complete the damage report and to get a quick, accurate reading of the emotional wounding done by the rampage.

At these times, compassion is vital. Without it, anger degenerates into brutality and tears the fabric of the team, office, or company. As much as possible, a positive emotional environment has to govern team, office, or company. Personally, after one of these tirades, there is a lingering sense of estrangement, and I feel compelled to repair it and get close to the team again. What made it even more difficult to deal with is that I have always tried to remember to incorporate compassion, even in the moments when I had to demonstrate a hard edge.

I can still remember some my first TI’s early in my career. I had a very young office (the average age was 26), almost all men. Back then, Tom Tognoli and John Thompson were young fresh agents who shared an office in the branch I managed. Often I called on them to give me insight on what the office attitude was from an agent perspective. After this specific TI moment I walked into their office and asked their thoughts. Was it good or bad? Their response was, “It was good and bad. Good, because you really got us to think and put us on the right track, but bad because you scared the hell out of half of the office. Some of them don’t know you as well as we do, and they thought you were only talking to them.”

The fact is - every moment of that Temporary Insanity (TI) was pre-thought out in words and gestures. I never once singled out any one agent. But the agents who knew they were guilty of withholding effort thought I was speaking directly to them!

We went on to finish the recession year of 1991 with 17 out of the 23 agents earning over $100k or more that year (which was a lot of money nineteen years ago).

A leader must be able to carry out harsh and at times ruthless decisions that are fast, firm and fair. When leaders apply this hard edge correctly it works in two ways: 1) by solving the immediate problem, 2) by preventing future problems because it sends out a very clear and important message: cross my line and you can expect severe consequences. Such actions will provide ongoing benefits for any leader and their organization.

In 2005 we did a spoof on the heavy-handed approach presented in the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. Click to view.