As Americans we like our leaders to be strong, assertive, and commanding. On the other hand, we also like them to show heart when the situation calls for it and not be too cool and unemotional. Certainly President Obama's poll numbers and pundits' comments have shown disapproval for him when he's too distant in his approach to bad news (the Gulf Oil spill or the lack of jobs, for instance).
So how does this translate into what we admire in our business leaders? Do employees want their leaders to be strong and assertive or do they prefer those who show compassion? In a recent blog, Stanford Professor Robert Sutton talks about assertiveness and leadership. He says, "Bosses often can't tell when they're pushing people too hard versus not challenging them sufficiently." He cites research conducted by Daniel Ames and Frank Flynn with MBA students at Columbia University that found that good bosses were generally rated average on terms like "competitive," "aggressive," "passive," and "submissive" by their direct reports. In other words, they were balanced and not too assertive or too passive. Likewise, ineffective leaders were those who were unbalanced, either too assertive or not enough.
In their research article, notes Sutton, Ames and Flynn say, "it isn't that highly regarded managers are moderately assertive all the time. Rather they modulate between pushing people hard enough at certain times, and backing off appropriately at other times. Being flexible and socially sensitive - knowing when it's the right time for either approach - enables them to be seen as motivating and engaged, but not as bullying or micro-managing."
No one gets this right all the time. But good managers develop an instinct for knowing what's needed in a particular situation. This requires paying attention to how your actions impact others and using the right approach for a specific person and situation. One size does not fit all. Sometimes being tough is right, while at other times being sympathetic works best. How often do you get it right? If you're a good boss, then your successes will far outweigh your failures.