The learning never stops as you climb the ranks of corporate leadership. You acquire the technical skills and industry insights necessary to stay ahead of the game. And they just require refresher courses now and then to keep your saw sharpened. But the higher up the ranks you ascend, the demand for technical acumen makes way for the increased need to broaden and deepen your people skills. Those lessons never seem to end.

In fact, it often feels that you’re being required by repeat the same lesson, but each time at perhaps a different level. As you rise, more and more people depend on you to be wise, with your emotional reactions tempered with perspective and proportion. You subscribe to the belief that it’s your job as the leader to create a company culture where your people – your tribe – feel safe to focus on their work, feel fulfilled and then go home at night to their families feeling happy and optimistic about the future. This means that you have to find that balance between being an inspiring, even demanding, leader who ignites high performance standards company-wide and being a caring human being whose own example creates an emotionally healthy work environment where people do their best because they want to and they feel supported by their leaders.

That requires a certain amount of emotional health. And, quite frankly, none of us can be emotionally healthy all the time. We each bring our baggage to the workplace (I’m fond of saying, however, that I prefer to leave my baggage at the station). And our tribe members don’t always experience our best moments. As sincerely as we may try to rise above our emotions, inevitably we put the wrong foot forward at times. And, oops, here comes another go at the lesson you thought you had already nailed.

For me, the lesson is a very specific one – I’m learning it all the time: How to be caring (“tender hearted”) and candid (“tough minded”) at the same time. I struggle with this dichotomy more than any other leadership challenge because I know myself well enough to know that I can quickly go to either extreme of this continuum – benefitting neither the business nor the individual I’m working with.

At WD-40 Company, we want to create positive, lasting memories with everyone we do business with – both the customers and all our tribe members. In our role as leaders, this means that our primary desire in every interaction with our people is to help them be better at the work they do. Being a leader is not about inflating our egos or exerting some kind of dominance. And so ideally, we enter into coaching conversations with a humble heart, even though the circumstance might require a certain amount of toughness.

But because we’re all human, with our own frustrations and emotional needs, we must be ever vigilant to make sure that our spirit of authentic caring doesn’t morph into indulging our need to release negative energy on the tribe member we’re supposed to be supporting. Even in the most difficult conversations that require more candor than caring, leaders have to stay on top of that impulse – no matter how well-intentioned they may be going into the meeting.

I have to watch myself almost every day. Because of my overwhelming caring for my tribe, I can very easily stay in the tender-hearted realm, where I become soft to the point that I’m no longer helping the person I’m coaching. I become overly compassionate, losing sight of my duty to help that tribe member achieve the best outcome for all of us.

At the other end of the spectrum, I have to admit that I am quite capable of becoming too tough if I drop my self-awareness along the way. I am at risk of allowing my ego to take over, and I feel anger, resentment, betrayal, and a degree of negativity toward the tribe member that that person doesn’t deserve. Because I’m aware of this tendency, I am also aware of my inclination to withdraw and avoid the difficult conversation altogether. And that helps no one either.

Whether your nature is to reside on the soft-hearted end of the continuum or on the tough end, you are abdicating your responsibility as a tribe leader.

But you are human too. And you both deserve and require the emotional support necessary to rise to your leadership role. To that end, I would like to offer you these key considerations that will help shape your temperament as you enter difficult, but essential, conversations:

1. Always being aware of the power of your leadership position.
Don’t lose sight of the fact that no matter how wounded, betrayed, or cheated you may be feeling at the time, the wrong word from you, delivered in a thoughtless, emotional way, could devastate your tribe member.

2. There are at least two equally legitimate interpretations of any incident that might precipitate a difficult conversation.
Harness your own emotionalized reaction by quietly and sincerely inviting your tribe member to explain the alternative interpretation. Three words, “help me understand,” will not only buy you time to regain control over your own reactions but also give your tribe member the chance to be heard and understood.

3. Always assume positive intent.
In most cases, people don’t come to work with the intention of destroying their company or compromising an initiative they’re working on. They are not saboteurs. By and large, they’re just people doing their best. And screwing up now and then. So are you. There’s something you two have in common.

4. Hold front of mind that this difficult conversation carries with it more value than merely resolving the crisis immediately at hand.
This is an opportunity for the two of you to achieve an enriched bond of trust and deepened relationship. Assuming that both of you want to continue your working relationship, this encounter will nurture the respect and understanding between you two. And you will demonstrate both your own sincerity and vulnerability that will strengthen the health of your entire tribal culture.

In our tribe, we are safe to assume that we are all reasonable people, sharing the same values, and equipped with the same information that is essential to serve our company. We are also all learning to be better performers. And better people.

Even the CEO.

Note:  For more information on Care, Candor, Accountability and Responsibility, see my Linked in article, Where There’s No Friction There’s Flow: The Four Pillars of the Fearless Tribe

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