28 October 2022 11:44:35 IST

The CEO and co-founder of TalentEase, Fernandez is a thought leader in education and a consultant and coach to school heads, teachers and parents. He has 18 years of outsourcing leadership experience in the Asia Pacific, consulting with and servicing global and regional clients. He was previously partner/managing director with Accenture, Singapore. He was the COO with Hewitt Outsourcing APAC, and President India Life Hewitt. He has overseen teams in sales, operations, client and account management, technology, finance and HR, and has extensive experience working with multinational clients across a wide industry and geographic spectrum. He is a sought-after speaker at education and industry conferences and is a columnist with Business Line on Campus .

What makes a tough leader?

A punishment to run three laps around a multi-acre property? Not dished out at a military or terrorist training camp, but what a manager had to endure from one of India’s unicorn CEOs. The crime? An entryway was shut that was meant to be open.

A Bloomberg article listed further instances of an abrasive, tough-guy style of management — ripping up presentations because of a missing page number, hurling Punjabi epithets at staff, abruptly shutting off meetings because of a superfluous sentence in a memo, a crooked paper clip or the quality of printing paper.

Only a few weeks ago, another CEO had admonished young employees starting off their careers, to quit their ‘ rona dhona’ and focus on working long and hard. Then you had Kapil Dev telling kids babied by hard-working parents to quit talking about pressure and stress and be grateful for their air-conditioned classrooms.

In some ways, there’s nothing wrong with the content of what many of these ‘leaders’ are trying to say. But in many ways, they are tone-deaf in portraying the supposed ‘tough guy’ leader looking down on us mere mortals from their teflon-coated skyscraper suites.

Elusive benefits

Many leaders crave to be feared rather than loved. They don’t balk at being rude and mean to people. And secretly they want to be admired for it. They want to be written about. They want legends told and retold. They don’t care about the trail of broken people they leave behind. Leaders need to be tough — but a warped reading of what toughness is leads to poor leadership.

Why do leaders behave in this way? Some of these fake-tough leaders put on mean-man masks to hide a pile of insecurities. Often, insecure leaders find the need to exaggerate their ‘toughness’ to hide their fears and inadequacies. As most of us know the bully on the playground is usually the biggest coward.

He will unhesitatingly pick on the smaller guys but turn tail and run at the sight of a stronger-meaner kid. Those behaviours don’t change when the same fake-tough guys land in leadership roles. They will pick on those lower down in the power chain but be obsequious and flattering when they’re dealing with someone up the power-chain — deep pocketed VCs or politicians, for example.

So many times, issues in our country, community and even in the business world cry out for voices of courage and conviction. Instead, what we hear from these fake-tough leaders is a deafening silence.

Sometimes they aspire to imitate the wrong role models. They read about a Steve Jobs being ruthless and mean and they tell themselves — well, that’s something I can do too since I’d like to be the next Steve Jobs. They watch a CEO humiliate a colleague and the whole room tremble and they immediately want to replicate the act on their stage.

The wrong role models in the wrong context, create the wrong runway for leadership. Often these Rambo leaders create temporary success, an illusion of greatness, and collect mock followers who get behind their backs but can’t wait to see them leave. Contrary to the myth that this kind of behaviour builds lasting companies, these leaders’ bad behaviour eats like acid into the insides of a team.

Skewed priorities

As Rishad Premji recently said: “The most dangerous people in organisations are people who are incredibly successful but leave 1,000 dead bodies on the way while they succeed. But that's not sustainable. I think, in large organisations, it doesn't take you very far. It only takes you to a certain point."

This behaviour can sometimes spring up when leaders chase the wrong goals — for example, valuation instead of value. With today’s unicorn mania, leaders define themselves by the next round of valuation. This causes them to literally whip all the horses harder in their relentless push for the next round of funding at an even bigger valuation than the last.

They forget author Fred Reichheld’s advice: “The fundamental job of a leader is to be a role model, an exemplary partner whose primary goal is to help people grow to their fullest human potential.”

When people are performing at their peak potential, inevitably the organisation they are part of will also scale new peaks. That is the culture the leader needs to create, one that is built on trust, respect, and integrity. When the CEO who meted out the three laps punishment justified his behaviour by saying “not everyone is a fit for our culture” — he was unwittingly calling out the lack of one.

A type of leader prone to this tough-guy act is often one who is blessed with an exceptionally high IQ. He is usually the smartest guy in the room. He has passed all the toughest entrance exams, studied at top-notch institutes, and carries a sense of entitlement. He has no patience for fools. Sometimes this super-high IQ is accompanied with a very poor EQ.

An ability to empathise, to appreciate another point of view, to listen, to learn, to sense motivations and aspirations, to embrace diversity — these seem missing from his leadership toolkit.

The hyper-speeding enterprise and leader is insulated from these blind spots for a while but eventually, there is a crash-and-burn often both personally and professionally. These leaders sometimes achieve success because they have got the product right or have mastered the process at scale, but the P that makes a business soar in the long run is People.

Straddling duality

What then is really tough leadership? Jim Rohn would draw several contrasts — “The challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humour, but without folly.”

Tough shows in the way you are willing to stand for your convictions especially when they extract a personal price. Tough shows in the way you can back your team even when they’ve stopped believing in themselves. Tough shows when you can pick yourself and the whole team up after a disastrous year and inspire everyone to carry on.

The really tough leaders are extremely humble, very self-aware, very generous, very forgiving, very compassionate. They are unyielding in the high standards they set, relentless in their drive for exceptional results, and forceful with non-performers but they refuse to lower the bar on being respectful and humane.

I’ve written before about Lawrence Kohlberg’s levels 1 to 6 of behaviour. Behaviour at level 1 is out of fear of a penalty or punishment. At level 2, it is for a reward. Level 3 is seeking approval. Level 4 is following the rules. Level 5 is when we do things because of consideration but the highest level 6 is when we act driven by a personal code, an internal engine.

True leaders aim to be level 6 themselves and harness the level 6 in their teams. The fake-tough leaders believe everyone is a level 1, 2 or 3 — so they behave as they believe. Douglas McGregor would write: “Behind every managerial decision or action are assumptions about human nature and human behaviour.” The fake-tough leaders make the wrong assumptions.

Such leaders who prefer to play the fake-tough-guy would do well to listen to Plato: “We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark. The real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.”