Be Assertive, But Not Too Much


a Quiet Leader Be Assertive, But Not Too MuchQuick: what’s the #1 quality of a good leader?

If you’re like most people, you probably think of intelligence, charisma, self-discipline. In a study by Daniel Ames, a Columbia Business School professor, and Francis Flynn, a professor at Stanford Business School, these were the strengths mentioned most frequently by employees asked to describe their colleagues’ leadership abilities.

But the most commonly reported weakness was assertiveness – either too much or too little.

“Assertiveness dominated reports of leadership weaknesses, though it wasn’t nearly as common in colleagues’ comments about strengths,” Ames told the American Psychological Association. “When leaders get assertiveness wrong, it’s glaring and obvious, but when they get it right, it seems to disappear. We say it’s like salt in a sauce: when there’s too much or too little, it’s hard to notice anything else, but when it’s just right, you notice the other flavors. No one compliments a sauce for being perfectly salted, and it’s just as unusual for a leader’s perfect touch with assertiveness to attract much notice.”

Moderate assertiveness is the way to go, said Ames, but this doesn’t mean it’s always appropriate. Instead, leaders who get assertiveness right adjust their behavior to the requirements of a given situation.

Where do you think you fall on the passivity-assertiveness-aggression spectrum? If you’re curious, you can take this quiz. It hasn’t been scientifically validated, but I found it useful anyway.

According to the quiz, I’m reasonably assertive, but still have room to work on it. How about you?

(*Thanks to my friend Adam Grant for alerting me to this study. Besides being a total mensch, Adam is the Wharton professor responsible for the recent groundbreaking research on the strengths of introverted leaders – he and his colleagues have shown for the first time when and why introverted leaders outperform extroverted ones.

*The gorgeous painting above is by Joe Velazquez.)

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  1. Luna on 05.10.2011 at 14:15 (Reply)

    This is a brilliant post. The analogy of the sauce equally so. I cannot agree more. Assertive and aggressive, to continue the foodie, analogy are not the same spice at all. I always say to my son as he navigates his way through the teen years, you must speak your truth… but remember to so quietly and kindly or it will not be heard at all.

  2. Brittany on 08.10.2011 at 22:45 (Reply)

    Interesting, I never would have thought assertiveness would be seen as one of the biggest weaknesses of a leader! I guess the assertiveness might become more like aggressiveness for some of those leaders, and that’s why it’s seen as unfavorable. Thanks for the info, nice post!

  3. “No” is Enough | Indra Process and Performance Consulting on 02.11.2011 at 23:51

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