Life isn’t fair. If you think you will always have the same raises, bonuses and opportunities as your peers, prepare to be disappointed. That’s life. As a leader, you will sometimes have to make personal sacrifices for the good of your organization. That’s life. You’ll sometimes have to make tough decisions that people might not agree with or feel are fair. That’s life. At the end of the day, you sometimes have to be a tough leader to achieve results.
For example, a football coach has to win games. He might be the players’ favorite coach, he might draw a lot of fans to the stadium, and he might have an incredibly inspiring pregame speech. But if he’s finishing multiple seasons with more losses than wins, he’s not going to have a job. It might not be fair, but it’s life.
Now that doesn’t mean a leader needs to be mean to achieve results. Bill Walsh, former legendary head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, was nicknamed “The Genius” for winning three Super Bowls and creating what’s known as the West Coast offense. But Walsh wasn’t a hard-nosed coach who screamed at his team from the sidelines. He was soft-spoken yet confident, instilling lessons about football and life to his players. Although Walsh wasn’t overbearing, he still held his players to account, and they responded. Many of those players, including Tony Dungy, went on to coach their own teams, passing down Walsh’s lessons to another generation.
So what does it mean for a leader to be tough but fair? It means developing a balanced understanding between achieving results and building working relationships with your team. Implement these five tips to become the leader others are proud to follow.
Prepare to win
New team members need to understand where they fit in the organization. Your job is not only to explain your work expectations, but also to find out how they expect to grow and what they need from you to achieve that growth.
A critical component of a tough but fair leader is doing what’s right even when it’s hard, even when it could cost you financially. But a great leader knows focusing on short-term gains can result in long-term costs. A team will stand behind a leader who is willing to do the right thing even when it isn’t easy. Back up your words with your actions. Live out your mission and values every day.
Once you’ve established your mission and communicated your goals, don’t hesitate to expect results from your team. Enthusiastically set tough goals with a team mentality. Your team will back you when they feel you’re in their corner, helping them fight for every win.
Correct mistakes immediately
Never let problems go unaddressed. If an employee is consistently falling short of his or her goals, schedule a meeting right now. Don’t wait because you’re afraid of confrontation or you think the problem will work itself out. A tough leader is assertive. Tough leaders don’t let things happen, they make things happen.
Show your team that their problems are your problems. When they fail, you fail. Work beside them to uncover difficult areas and work together to learn from those mistakes. Nobody wants a leader who talks down to them, constantly pointing out mistakes without offering tips for improvement.
You are the captain of your organization. It’s your job to lead the ship safely to shore, especially during a storm. It’s easy to direct when the waters are calm. A tough leader knows when and how to take control when the waves start churning. But don’t wait until the storm is upon you to adjust your sails. By then it’s too late, and you’ll spend a lot of your time reacting to problems instead of anticipating them.
Make your team a priority
Good leaders can put themselves in the shoes of other people. It’s not easy. I know I struggle to get out of my own head and listen. But it’s a vital piece of connecting with your team and building loyalty. And you can’t just do it once. Listening and building loyalty is something you need to work at every day.
For example, if you tell someone his or her personal growth is important to you, but you don’t make the time or effort to plan that growth, you’re effectively saying, Your needs aren’t a priority to me. As a leader, you’re held to a higher standard. You have to be aware of how your words and actions send a message to others.
Your team needs to play an important role in the decision-making process. This means you can’t be locked away in your office. Encourage your team to feel comfortable enough to be honest with you—to share ideas, feedback and goals. You might not always like what they have to say, but it’s important your people know they have a voice.
Part of being tough is learning to take tough feedback. Not everyone will like you or agree with your decisions. Encourage them to come to you with comments, questions and concerns. Reflect on their feedback and adjust when necessary. A good leader knows he or she doesn’t have all of the answers. I’ve had plenty of employees come to me with ideas that I never would have thought of on my own. You never know where those ideas will come from, so encourage constant communication.
One of the fastest ways to break the trust of your employees is to send mixed or inconsistent messages. Rumors can spread like wildfire when people feel they’re not getting the full story. People need to know they can trust you. Be honest with them. Discuss any problems and how you’re addressing them. Some issues don’t have immediate answers, but an open line of communication shows that you’re aware and acting.
Reward success and discipline failure
Treating people fairly doesn’t mean treating people equally. Each and every person working under you has a different story, a different background. Employees might have the same training and similar work experience, but their personalities and the way they bring value to your team are starkly different. And you need to treat them that way.
Reward those who go above and beyond to drive the organization toward shared goals. Don’t be afraid to publicly recognize the top performers. Everyone needs to feel appreciated. And those who weren’t recognized will feel motivated to do better and achieve more. If everyone is given the same recognition, regardless of their individual performance, what incentive does anyone have to get better?
Being tough requires assertiveness, collaborating on ideas and striving to influence others to turn ideas into action. You have to guide, lead, persuade and move your people to achieve results. The best way to do that is by building trust, treating each person individually and keeping the lines of communication open. Only then will you see all you can accomplish.