THE BLOG
01/22/2015 05:17 pm ET Updated May 10, 2015

Leading Well: Know When and How to Be Tough

A tough message and tone -- used sparingly, privately and deliberately -- is a necessary leadership tool. If as a manager or leader you haven't yet honed your skills around a "sharp edge" that suits you, you're probably overly nice or overly critical. Both can cause problems for you and your team.

That said, "excellence in edginess" was demonstrated to me -- as the recipient -- early in my own work history.

Before I became a coach, I was a corporate exec. At one point in my career I was managing a multimillion dollar project that had hit some major stumbling blocks. Out of the blue, my boss's boss got on the elevator I was on. It was just the two of us. After a few floors, she looked me in the eyes and said, "I hear your project hit a big snag." She paused, and I nodded yes, and she added, "We both know too many people who left this place on rails when they over-promised and under-delivered. I'd hate to lose you that same way." Pause. Wow. "Make it work, and let me know what you need." Silence. Ding. Off she went.

It worked. While it was hard to hear, I took it as "fuel" to get my project back on track. It worked because it was in character for her (e.g., authentic), and she offered both consequences and support. It was neither mean nor rude. It was clear.

These days I'm often presented with executive clients who've yet to master their sharper edge skills, and instead have gotten feedback about being too mean or too "needing to be liked." I've worked with a lot of people on this, and have found the common factors that help with both styles. They've helped my clients, and can work for you too:

1. Use toughness sparingly. In the example, she wasn't constantly prodding or micromanaging me me given the issues in my project. It was a sharp sting, but one that needed only be delivered once. It's 15 years later and I still remember it verbatim.

2. Deliver it privately. No one else was on the elevator. It was NOT in front of a group, my team, her team or anyone else. It was one-on-one, which is the way I recommend my clients deliver critical or even tough messages. Praise in public, punish in private, as the saying goes.

3. Be thoughtful and deliberate -- and not reactive -- about it. Critical or sharp-edged messages delivered in the heat of reacting to something are always a mistake. Deliberate means she thought about it. If you're going to be critical, you owe it to the recipient to have thought it out.

Find your tough self and use it in a similar way -- with authenticity, consequences and support as needed, and delivered sparingly, privately and deliberately. Once you have mastered that, it will serve you -- and those you lead -- well.