Tough leadership can be successful – but only with two key ingredients

If I were asked to describe the dominant style of leadership in workplaces today, I would have to conclude that most employ what I would regard as a pretty nice, social, collaborative, and interpersonally-focused leadership style.

Sure, there are plenty of newsworthy examples to the contrary, but data from more than one million takers of the test “What’s Your Leadership Style?” reveals that more than half of all leaders currently use this Diplomat style of leadership. Diplomat leaders are kind, social, and giving. They typically want to build deep and personal bonds with their employees.

This majority modus operandi contrasts strongly with the fewer than ten percent of leaders that utilize what’s regarded as a Pragmatist style. Pragmatists are the most intense leaders you can possibly get. They’re driven, competitive, and value hitting their goals above everything else. (It should be noted that these are not the only two styles of leadership, but their diametrical opposition makes them a great study in contrasts).

But…which one’s best?

On first reflection of these different leadership styles, it would be natural to assume that employees working for Diplomats would be far happier and more engaged than those working under Pragmatists.

But – and this may surprise you – for the right employees, having a tough and driven Pragmatist boss can foster every bit as much engagement as the softer Diplomat.

The catch is that for someone to thrive under the tough leadership of the Pragmatist, they need to have two things: High levels of ambition and the opportunity to learn.

Employees with high levels of ambition

On a recent test of more than 10,000 employees, we assessed workers’ ambition by asking them to choose between two statements:

  • Being “average” in my work is a truly terrible thought for me.
  • I like to be good at my work, but I don’t need to be the absolute “best.”

About four out of ten people said that being average was a terrible thought (a classic measure of ambition). And for those folks, the Pragmatist style of leadership was three times more appealing than for the less ambitious respondents.

It makes sense when you think about it from the perspective of a highly ambitious employee.

For people who loathe the idea of being average, having a boss that pushes them to greatness, regardless of their feelings in the moment, is likely to lead to great accomplishments.

Having ambition here is key for employees working for Pragmatists, the job can sometimes feel like being an apprenticeship to a master artist or professor. Without employee ambition, however, the Pragmatist is likely to feel like a stern taskmaster focused on creating painful scenarios for the sake of creating painful scenarios.

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Many opportunities to learn

Without a big, meaningful end in mind, Pragmatist leaders can foment burnout. After all, what’s the point of pushing incredibly hard when there isn’t a clear goal to achieve? But for people who have the opportunity to learn, and thus advance their careers, being pushed to achieve and learn is similar to having a tough coach who’s pushing you to win the upcoming competition. Yes, it’s tough, but the payoff is worth it.

Unfortunately, in a recent study, Leadership IQ found that 52% of employees said they’re never, rarely, or only occasionally learning new things at work. But for the 35% of employees who say they’re always learning new things, the intense Pragmatist leader is highly desirable.

We already know that when someone is always learning new things at work, they are literally ten times more likely to be inspired to give their best effort at work than someone who is never learning new skills at work. Now, combine an ambitious personality with people who are always learning, and you have the perfect combination of attributes for people who love the intense Pragmatist leader.

In conclusion…

It’s clear to me that having hard-charging leaders – that is, people who are driven, competitive, and value hitting their goals above employee happiness – is not necessarily a bad thing for many organizations.

But…HRDs have to remember. Their organization also needs ambitious employees who are given a chance to learn.

Have both in place, and you have a leadership approach that unabashedly pushes employees towards greatness is not only acceptable, it’s actually desirable.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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