If leadership doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right

Ben Bryant, Professor, IMD

If leadership doesn’t hurt, you’re not doing it right

Old models of leadership were all about how to delegate power. A leader’s main role was to disarm conflicts and to create confidence among their people. By making employees feel good, they would give them the space they need to perform well, the thinking went.

This doesn’t work anymore. Today’s world is different. It is much more of a mess than it used to be – or volatile, unpredictable, complex and ambiguous, as that mess is called in business.

With that messiness, leaders need to learn to deal with a lot more dissonance and a lot more discomfort than ever before.

No pleasing everybody

If you try to make everyone happy you won’t last very long as a leader. Getting people to do things they don’t like to do is also a big part of the job description.

A leader’s job is to make the best choices for the good of their organizations. This will often mean that what they choose will make others, including those they lead and those they report to, unhappy.

There will always be someone who doesn’t like a course of action or who will feel betrayed. There are always going to be people in an organization who benefit from the status quo or those who would be better off with change. Those people will usually work to further their own interests.

A leader’s job is to set aside those interests and do what’s best for the organization, even if it means ruffling some feathers.

Putting up with conflict

Welcome to the world of leadership. If you can’t handle conflict, you’ve chosen the wrong line of work.

Of course conflict is unpleasant, but it is also inevitable and necessary. Leaders have to be ready for the conflict that others, like their employees, higher-ups or customers, are going to create. They also have to be ready to create conflict themselves.

These conflicts will run from being slightly annoying to very painful. But as a manager or a leader this is what you are hired to handle, so be ready for it.

Look at Steve Jobs. He was arrogant, rude and aggressive – the opposite of what many leadership textbooks prescribe. But, aggression can be a good thing. If you're not aggressive, you aren’t going to change the world.

But this doesn’t mean bosses should treat their people badly or harass them for no reason. People need to feel safe enough to dare to be honest with each other. But what is "safe enough"?

Harmony and security are absolutely essential in an organization. But harmony can’t take precedence over absolutely everything else.

The pain of change

Any change will create discomfort, so you can’t lead if you can’t tolerate pain.

At some point all good leaders will probably fail and have to betray others. They will also be betrayed.

Betrayal is defined as being disloyal towards a group you belong to, but the problem is that we all belong to lots of groups at the same time. A middle manager belongs to a management team, but he or she also belongs to a department.

A classic case of betrayal is when a CEO tells a manager to cut staff. The manager’s team members are obviously not going to be pleased. Above there’s pressure to cut staff and below there’s pressure to not cut staff.

Another familiar situation for a manager is when a job demands longer hours but the family at home wants the manager to work less. Whatever the manager chooses, one side will feel betrayed.

A good leader should strive to make decisions that are for the greatest good, but often either way there will be pain for both the decision-maker and those who are affected by their choices.

Get ready for rejection

When someone is betrayed, they often reject the person who turned on them in one way or another. Everybody knows people don’t like to be betrayed but managers can’t let that cloud their thinking. They need to be able to betray when necessary without letting the fact that someone will be hurt stop them from doing what needs to be done. 

A good leader has to be ready not to be liked and to be rejected.

When they are rejected they must accept it calmly. Many fruitless conflicts arrive when people feel threatened and put up their defences. When managers put up their defences they can protect themselves from discomfort but they can also “protect” themselves from learning from a conflict.

A leader should be able to accept criticism despite the pain it may cause. If they fight back without considering what the other person is communicating, they will escalate the conflict.

On the other hand, they have to be able to give criticism without delivering it too harshly. If a boss delivers criticism too strongly then the subordinate can get defensive and the conflict can become deadlocked. Leaders must be able to think rationally and have control over their emotions at all times, especially in cases of conflict.

Not hired to make friends

Don’t forget you’re not at work to make friends. As the boss, your employees will want you to like them. Who doesn’t want their boss to like them? But a leader’s job is to keep enough social distance so their judgement is not clouded by their perceived “friends” or “foes”.

Just because leaders need to be ready to handle discomfort and create conflict when needed, that doesn’t mean they should preside over a reign of terror. If there is no trust among a team, they will handle conflicts badly and won’t perform well.

To sum up, we’re living in a new era. It’s a real mess and there’s a lot more dissonance and uncertainty. Over time, this dissonance is only going to get more and more intense.

As an executive you aren’t paid to be comfortable. So deal with it and get ready to tolerate more discomfort.

About the Author

Ben Bryant is a Professor of Leadership at IMD business school in Switzerland.