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Is It Better to Be Tough or Compassionate?

Follow the latest leadership fad and you are likely to get whiplash. Like a pendulum set in motion, the leadership industry swings predictably back and forth between pushing for compassion and kindness one day, and toughness and discipline the next.

We try one and see it does not work, so we swing back hard and try the other, only to discover that it does not work either. In the end we throw our hands up and blame other people. But the problem is us. Or rather not understanding that compassion and toughness are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the most effective leaders hold these two in perfect balance.

Toughness not tempered by compassion is coercion.

A leader who is tough but lacks compassion is a leader who ultimately will be perceived as uncaring and harsh. They have one speed – drive hard for results and use the threat of discipline and continual criticism as big sticks. What carrots they offer are in the form of transactional rewards – you do for me, and I’ll do for you. Trust will be low. As a result, this is a leader who will have low influence. They may get compliance, but they rarely achieve commitment and full engagement because they lose the heart along the way.

Compassion without toughness is people pleasing disguised as kindness.

Why do we struggle with holding people accountable? It is almost always rooted in placing too much emphasis on people pleasing. We want to be liked and so avoid hurting other’s feelings. The result is that we shy away from difficult conversations and hold back constructive feedback that others need to hear. A leader who is compassionate but reluctant to hold others accountable is a leader who is hurting the very people they profess to care about. Despite their best intentions, this leader will eventually lose credibility with the team. Team members will see the people pleasing for what it is, and trust will be low. Engagement and results will suffer.

Compassion and toughness in perfect balance.

Think back on the people in your life who impacted you in a significant way. I can almost guarantee you they are people who pushed you to reach your potential. They challenged you to be better. They cared enough to give you some tough feedback when you needed it most. You trusted them because you knew they cared enough to be honest with you when others would not.

There is actually great strength in compassion. It builds high trust and expands a leader's influence. And when tempered by the mental toughness to do the right thing, it is a powerful force for building actively engaged teams.

The perfect leader is one who holds these two in perfect balance. They are compassionate and tough at the same time. They are active and intentional to communicate they care and practice empathy, even as they hold people accountable for behavior and results. They are direct in giving feedback but never harsh. They cheer others on but are never false. They are not afraid to make tough decisions that are in the best interest of the mission and team, even when those decisions are unpopular. They are also willing to remove people from the team who are disengaged and disruptive to the team.

Why? Because they care about people, put the team first, and want to create the right conditions where every member of the team can flourish.


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