Insights in Leadership

How to be a Properly Assertive Leader

March 16, 2015



Many leaders struggle with being assertive in the right way and at the right time.  Consider this story:


     My name is Tony and I run the customer service section at our local branch office. Last month our operations were being reviewed by a corporate team led by the Regional Office Manager.  While he and I were going over our ISO-9001 processes, we were distracted by Sylvia, a senior member of my team, who was talking loudly with another worker.  I personally find it difficult to deal with Sylvia. She intimidates me so I mostly try to stick to small talk and avoid crossing her. 


     The Regional Manager was annoyed with her loud voice. I prayed she would stop! When she didn’t, he prodded me with a look to, “Go take care of that!”


     With a lump in my throat, I approached and tried to quietly shush Sylvia. She looked at me with scorn and whispered, “Oh am I being too loud?” then went back to her conversation with a nasty glance back at me. I tried again and she ignored me. I’d had enough and thoughtlessly yelled “Shut up!” which is what the Regional Manager saw and heard as he walked up behind me. 


     He immediately took me into my office and had a formal counseling session with me about being disrespectful and too coercive, and directed me to apologize to Sylvia. How ironic and frustrating!  I’m on the pad for being too hard, when I’m actually too passive!  My future is in the toilet and I’m thinking of just quitting.


As with Tony, others will not respect and follow a leader who is too passive and lets others walk all over them. Being too passive can also lead to being indecisive, taking on work one shouldn’t, or withholding vital information especially if it is bad news or unpopular.  Too passive usually equals wimpy.


On the other hand, being too assertive is also hard for others to respect as it may leave them feeling pushed around, not listened to, manipulated, or dominated.  Excessive assertiveness can also result in micro-management. Too assertive usually equals pushy, or even aggressive.


Interestingly, being too passive or too assertive both come from the same place in us as we unconsciously concentrate on the wrong thing - how we personally feel.  Specifically we are operating from our comfort zone rather than thinking about and doing what is right for the team of people working for us. In both cases, the team knows this and loses respect and esprit-de-corps.


If this is you – too pushy or too passive – there are several things you can do to help apply these vital skills with the balance necessary to lead effectively.


First, consciously refocus yourself on doing what is right for your team instead of what makes you personally feel comfortable or avoiding discomfort.


Second, get a good mentor. Nothing is more effective at helping you deal with your shortfalls. Dissect past occurrences that went wrong, and then practice with your mentor the right way to think, act, and communicate. Also strategize with your mentor as new situations arise to fully retrain yourself and gain confidence with these skills.


Third, remain diligent at consciously focusing on doing what is right for your team instead of your personal comfort. There is strength for you in this higher purpose. Your team will respect that you’ve changed, after a time, and will come to know that you are out for them rather than yourself. This is leadership others can willingly support and follow.



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