Backup Being Tough is Just Nuts

I might have known it would happen. I’d just finished reading emotional intelligence guru Daniel Goleman’s dialogue with the Dalai Lama, Destructive Emotions, and was getting in touch with my inner self when headline in the latest issue of Management Today magazine asks me if I think I’m “hard enough” as manager.

There you go. Academics and consultants changing the rules again. Now it’s mental toughness, not EQ, that stiffens the bones on which leadership flesh is layered. According to research team from the University of Wales, Goleman and company will be forced to re-think their theories on “touchy-feely” management in favour of what they call “mental toughness – the quality that helps elite performers prevail while others fall by the wayside”.

There are, apparently, 10 tough values that leaders need, though not necessarily all at once, to succeed in today’s competitive and fast pace marketplace.

Effective leaders must, for instance, believe in themselves. They must be convinced that they possess “unique qualities and abilities” to achieve goals and outwit opponents.

Leaders need to be resilient and recover quickly from setbacks; keep fully focused on the “task in hand”; be driven by an “insatiable desire” to succeed; be able to regain psychological control after unexpected events and have the resolve to “push back boundaries of physical and emotional pain, while maintaining discipline and effort”.

And, say the researchers, leaders need nerves of steel to cope with pressure; to be independent and not impacted by the good and bad performances of others; to thrive on competitive pressure and, finally, they need “chillability” – which simply means being able to switch focus at will.

To reinforce the contention, the authors linked the various “tough” characteristics to selection of heavyweight leaders now strutting the world stage like US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Virgin’s Richard Branson, multi-billionaire investor Warren Buffet and other high flying British leaders. The editorial approach to sustaining the argument wasn’t entirely convincing, but it was good read.

But there, in trice, it was – an apparent swing from one extreme of thought about leadership to another. Or was it all that extreme? Does one set of qualities in an individual preclude the existence of the other? Can leaders be “hard”, to use the terminology, and “emotionally intelligent” at the same time? Probably, but who’s got the time or research budget to prove it?

I don’t like the idea of advocating “hard” leadership. There’s already too much of it about. I interrupted writing this column to watch the first shots, verbal and artillery, rain down on Baghdad. That’s “hard” leadership, if the action taken by either side in Iraq can be called leadership.

It’s difficult to argue with the value of the individual traits identified by this latest piece of research. But to suggest they, and only they, are the qualities which in composite will equip leaders to lead in today’s world is absurd. It is just as absurd as suggesting that only individuals stuffed to the ear lobes with EQ make the best leaders.

Leaders need to think strategically, communicate effectively, act decisively and demonstrate ethical behaviour and strong character. But you don’t need to be “tough” to deliver on all or any of these. Strong character, including traits like honesty and fairness, is perhaps the single most important of all leadership qualities.

An individual of strong character, call it integrity, is likely to possess good many of the 10 “tough” characteristics discovered in Wales. He or she is also just as likely to harbour reservoir of Goleman’s so-called emotional intelligence. The difference in leadership style and effectiveness will depend on the balance.

I guess what we should be thinking about is the disconnect between the trend toward “me” society and the “selfless” qualities of really good leadership. Our pre-occupation with getting “me” satisfied on the assumption that some trickle-down effect will also help others around us, is spawning whole new industries like “personal coaching”. The unquestioned assumption that coaches will equip managers to cope with work and life is dangerous.

Taken to frightening conclusion, the “exclusive development” of the individual could breed out of us the very quality that makes great leaders – thinking about others.

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