David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

Ruthlessness and Charity

post # 481 — January 2, 2008 — a Managing, Strategy post

In an editorial in today’s Wall Street Journal, Lawrence B. Lindsey, author of a new book “What a President should Know … but Most Learn Too Late” gives the opinion that we (the electorate) should seek (as our president) an individual who is ruthless about protecting us against others, but (who) acts with charity towards all and malice towards none at home.

Lindsey acknowledges immediately that this is a tall order.

I don’t know if Lindsey’s opinion is (a) correct or (b) translates into the business world, but it’s an interesting hypothesis about the contrast between an “aggressive, competitive” style when dealing with the external world, and a “nurturing, collaborative” style that many (including me) would advocate inside the firm.

I have a suspicion that “switching” mindsets is difficult for many people, if not most of us. Those who are aggressive externally may have a bias towards creating internally competitive organizations, and those who tend toward the “nurturing, collaborative” style may fail to evoke the ambition and dynamism on the external marketplace needed for commercial success.

We could create a categorization scheme of four types (of people or organizations):

  • Externally aggressive, internally nurturing and collaborative
  • Externally aggressive, internally aggressive
  • Externally nurturing and collaborative, internally aggressive
  • Externally nurturing and collaborative, internally nurturing

Which would you bet on to succeed? Which do you think is actually most common?


Shama Hyder said:

I think the future is really here-

Externally nurturing and collaborative, internally nurturing

But the present situation is more-

Externally aggressive, internally aggressive

posted on January 2, 2008

charles tippett said:

Wow – this is a real challenging issue. Stephen Covey wrote about it when he described the successful surgeon who is a maniac dictator in O.R. to great success, but subsequently and very naturally has problems managing and getting along in his office environment. In my 20’s and early to mid 30’s i was aggressive/agressive. Then in my late 30’s (became a dad) and now early 40’s i realize that while i try to nurture internally, i probably tend to do the same externally. Maybe wisdom/experience makes up the difference in the market place – maybe i’m fooling myself….. If we could master this dichotomy – we’d all be rich and famous.

posted on January 2, 2008

James Gurulé said:

Aggressive/Aggressive is the unfortunate contemporary standard. The opportunity here is to change that with good Leadership. Many people in leadership roles confuse leadership with management. In my opinion human basics such as empathy, honesty and forgiveness (sometimes forgiveness of yourself) are key factors in becoming a nurturing leader. < ?xml:namespace prefix =" o" ns =" "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office"" />

posted on January 2, 2008

Ed Kless said:

I agree with David that switching mindset would be difficult. I would rather see someone who is aggressive/aggressive or nuture/nuture rather than either of the combinations.

Not only is it difficult for the individual, but it is confusing to people, especially employees. We see inconsistent behavior from leadership.

This is why I have never been a fan of Jack Welch and transactional leadership. To me it seems that this is leadership schizophrenia.

posted on January 2, 2008

Kathleen Bradley said:

I have been following this blog this morning and I am having considerable difficulty with the framework of the discussion. Do we need to discuss this as “either/or” — aggressive or nurturing. And, is it not possible to be assertive (as opposed to aggressive) and nurturing? In my mind, the key to success as a leader is to call on behavior appropriate to the situation, not to adopting only one mode in a particular environment (see, for example, the way that the Thomas-Kilmann Mode Instrument describes different types of conflict-handling behaviors).

posted on January 2, 2008

David (Maister) said:

Kathleen, one can’t argue with your point that “success as a leader is to call on behavior appropriate to the situation.”

However, I do propose that the spectrum of choice is (in practice) meaningful. As I observe firms select their leaders, there is often a clear distinction between “hard-driving”, uber-competitive types, and those who stress institution-building. Inside many firms, the choice as to whom would serve the firm best is a very real discussion.

Like you (and like many firms) I’d love to see leaders who can combine the best of both attributes – and I concede that it’s possible. I report only that it’s often scarce to come by.

posted on January 2, 2008

David (Maister) said:

Ellen Ostrow wrote in to say, “Interesting, David. Isn’t this a description of a “mother” — aggressively defends her young but is nurturing to them?

Can we agree on “parent”, Ellen?

posted on January 2, 2008

Wally Bock said:

One contributing factor to this is that we reward aggressive competitiveness with promotion in most organizations. Many of the senior people I’ve run into at large organizations competitive to a fault.

posted on January 2, 2008

Mike DeWitt said:

I agree with Ellen and David regarding the analogy to “parent”. And I think we’ve all seen individuals who have wronged the community and their children by being too ruthless in their “protection”. I like Ronald Reagan’s attitude of “trust but verify” (even internally). That opens up the opportunity to be collaborative and nurturing without taking undue risk.

posted on January 2, 2008

Barb said:

This is a fascinating topic and discussion. My nature is to be “externally nurturing and collaborative, internally nurturing”, and unfortunately, I think that’s a big part of why I burnt out of corporate life. I just didn’t fit in and didn’t thrive in the aggressive environment. Where the balance is, I don’t know. This post reminded me of a book I recently read by Bob Burg and John David Mann called The Go-Giver. The authors have the attitude that providing more in value than you take in financial compensation is the key to personal and career success and how good management can help instil this attitude in employees.

posted on January 4, 2008

Scott Mcarthur said:

More and more people are looking towards their organisations not just to provide the monthly pay packet but also to provide employees with a sense of pride in what the organisation does. What gives this sense of pride to individuals is also changing where previously it was corporate sucess people are now looking to issues such as the environment and charity. This notion is explained by Bains in his brilliant book Meaning Inc.

With regards to the political dimension – I’m not sure this is a topic I am well qualified to comment on. However, what I will say is that here in the UK many people see the inward facing attitude of the early Bush administration as one of the major contributors of his very negative image internationally. Perhaps this is a lesson for business?

posted on January 6, 2008

Gustaf Brandberg said:

When i first read the this blog entry, I did not agree with Lindsey’s opinion at all, but then I realised that it all comes down to what we define as internal/external. The company border is one definition, but too narrow in my opinion. The national border is too narrow as well. Remember the prisoner’s dilemma (or google it if you have not learned the lesson yet). It is hard to create trust with an agressive approach, and trust is what this world needs more of. I wish more people, including your president, could be more inclusive.

Gustaf Brandberg, Sweden

posted on January 7, 2008

Alison Clayton-Smith said:

I agree with Gustaf’s last couple of sentences and the earlier comment about being assertive rather than aggressive. I firmly believe that the next step in evolution needs to be collaboration – humans focusing on working together rather than competing over resources. The challenge for organisations (and nations) is to have the guts to stick to this approach in the face of aggression. Aggression typically breeds more aggression – it is a dangerous spiral to get into.

posted on January 10, 2008

Matt Moore said:

Leaving aside the internal orientation and focusing on the external, part of the issue with aggressive vs. nurturing behaviour is the complexity of the external environment.

Competitors one day may well be partners – or even clients – the next. If you’ve screwed them over royally in the past then it may require a lot of effort to fix things in the present.

posted on January 17, 2008