A little ill will works wonders

Many leaders measure their success on how well they get people to like them. They view their staff as customers—and take steps to curry favor with them.

Colin Powell rejects that approach. Powell, 76, is a retired four-star general in the U.S. Army and served as U.S. Secretary of State from 2001 to 2005.

Here’s one of Powell’s top leadership principles: “Being re­­sponsible sometimes means pissing people off.”

“Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity,” he says. “You’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset.”

Choosing to act as a feel-good leader often backfires. People may like you and think you’re “nice,” but they may perceive you as a weak pushover and resent your unwillingness to come down hard on laggards.

Powell knows that leaders cannot get the best out of everyone by dancing around unpleasant issues. Plainspoken bluntness might sting temporarily, but most employees ultimately respect a leader who refuses to mince words.

If you’re displeased with a staffer’s performance, set the right tone. Say, “Chris, it’s time to focus on how you’re not exhibiting the level of professionalism that we need. So let’s devise a plan that you can implement to turn it around—and fast. If not, the outcome will not be good for you or for us.”

Afterward, Chris might be angry with you. But your comments paint a stark picture and leave no room for ambiguity.

— Adapted from “Great leaders know how to make tough decisions,” Steve Adubato, www.nj.com.