The Sharpening Stone – On Being, or Becoming, an Assertive Leader

We’ve all heard, and have probably used, the term “assertive” in describing our own or others’ behavior or personality. But how clear are you really on what it means to be assertive? I ask because I hear people say things like “He’s too assertive” when they find someone intimidating, mean-spirited, or harsh. So, today I’d like to look together at what it actually means to be assertive, and why it is an important skill for any leader to master.

You’ll notice I described assertiveness as a “skill”, because I believe that to be an accurate characterization. Assertiveness is a behavioral competence, not a personality trait and, like any skill, it is learned through proper practice. It is the ability to effectively address an issue or concern with another in a direct and productive manner, and to do so for the mutual good of both parties.

When someone describes another as “too assertive” what they most likely mean is that the other is aggressive, pushy, seeking their own benefit above the other. Such behavior is rooted in excessive regard for oneself and insufficient regard for others. It is about getting your own way, usually at the expense of others. It is a win-lose proposition.

The opposite error is found in behavior we call “passive”. Passive behavior is rooted in respect for others but insufficient respect for oneself. It allows others to have their way or say at our expense, usually for fear of being seen as selfish, or of causing conflict. It is a lose-win proposition.

But assertive behavior, properly understood, is rooted in respect for both oneself and the other. While it may insist on being heard, it is also eager to hear the other’s point of view and to seek genuine communication and understanding. It encourages the other to speak their mind if that is lacking. (e.g., “I really need to hear your thoughts on this”). That is needed because assertiveness is about seeking a win-win outcome.

So, why is this important to effective leadership? As leaders, we often need to address issues of concern with other leaders and/or with those we lead. If we are going to coach others effectively, we need to speak clearly and directly about what we see them doing and where that is on-target or in need of correction. We need to build the trust that comes from others knowing where they stand with us, and being able to count on direct, useful feedback.

I am reminded of the quote from Herbert Spencer that “The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.” If we don’t want to be the leader and shaper of fools or tyrants, we need to be able and ready to speak truth with kindness in a way that uses correction and reinforcement to build trust and coach excellence.

About the Author: Dixon Miller, Ph.D.

Dixon earned his Doctorate and Master’s degrees in Clinical Psychology from Biola University and holds a Bachelor’s degree from Messiah College. In addition to being a licensed psychologist and board-certified clinical neuropsychologist, Dixon brings business leadership experience in ownership, governance, and management roles. He most recently served as CEO at Acadia, Inc., where he is also a long-standing member of the Board of Directors. He was a founder and Managing Partner of Behavioral Healthcare Consultants in Lancaster prior to joining the team at Acadia, and was previously the Director of Behavioral Medicine at Lancaster General Hospital. Dixon is highly skilled in psychological assessments, and brings a strong foundation in leadership development, organizational dynamics, cultural climate assessment, change management, employee engagement,, and performance/sports psychology.

The Sharpening Stone

The Sharpening Stone is a series of short videos from True Edge designed to sharpen leaders and their organizations.

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