Great Leaders Sometimes ‘Piss People Off’

There are so many theories and philosophies of what makes a great leader. I have talked to leaders of all stripes about their challenges and frustrations, as well as their secrets of success. But every once in a while, you come across a leadership lesson that is irrefutable, and interestingly it was told to me in a public television interview with General Colin Powell about 15 years ago. At the time, I asked General Powell about the essence of leadership, and he said, “Being a great leader means sometimes pissing people off.”

Powell’s point is insightful and profound. Many of us in leadership positions are too concerned with wanting people to like us and every decision we make. We want everyone to accept and like the way we handle different situations.

Yet, this is simply not always possible or preferable. Says Powell, “Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity: you’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset.”

Powell is right. The irony is that when we don’t make the tough choices as leaders because we want to be nice to everyone all the time or treat them equally, regardless of their performance, we guarantee mediocrity. The fact is, being a great leader requires that you sometimes make decisions that make people on your team unhappy or pissed off. Leaders must look at “confrontation” as an opportunity to deal with an ongoing problem or challenge head-on.

For example, you may need to communicate directly, without mincing words, to a team member that he or she is performing under par or is behaving unacceptably: “Jim, we need to talk specifically about how you are not getting the job done and we need to come up with a plan to turn it around quickly. If not, it isn’t going to be good for you or for our team.”

Your goal is not to threaten Jim but rather to tell him exactly where things stand and what is expected moving forward.

When you talk with Jim in such a fashion, he is not going to walk out of your office singing your praises. But what would happen if you didn’t have that conversation with Jim, knowing his performance had been subpar for so long? What if you chose to deal with the situation by doing nothing and just hoping things got better? Not confronting it would mean missing a big opportunity to solve a problem—one that could potentially hurt your organization in the long run, if not addressed.

A huge leadership lesson to remember: Hope is not a plan, particularly for a good leader.

I’m not advocating that you “piss people off” just for the sake of it or because you can. That’s just arrogant and contentious. Being respectful and courteous is a priority for any leader. However, occasionally “pissing people off” goes with the territory if you are the kind of leader that deals directly and honestly with your people and situations that must be confronted. The alternative is unacceptable; the outcome of such a passive approach will be much worse for you and for your team.

When have you had to “piss someone off” while dealing with a problem or challenge head-on? Write to Steve Adubato at to share your Lessons in Leadership.

2015_Steve Adubato Headshot_Cropped_Fixed Shoulder (3)Steve Adubato Ph.D., is the author of numerous books including his latest, “You Are the Brand”, and his upcoming book, “Lessons in Leadership”. He is also an Emmy Award-winning anchor on Thirteen/WNET (PBS) and NJTV (PBS) who regularly appears on CNN, FOX News and NBC’s Today Show. Steve also provides executive leadership coaching and seminars for a variety of corporations and organizations both regionally and nationally. To read more Lessons in Leadership visit Follow Steve on Twitter @SteveAdubato and Facebook @SteveAdubatoPhD.


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Steve Adubato

Steve Adubato

Steve Adubato Ph.D., is an Emmy Award-winning anchor of three television series, “One-on-One with Steve Adubato,” “Caucus: New Jersey with Steve Adubato,” and “State of Affairs with Steve Adubato” airing on PBS stations, Thirteen/WNET, NJTV and WHYY and on cable on FiOS. He has appeared on the Today show, CNN, MSNBC, Fox, AM970, SiriusXM and NPR as a media and political analyst. Steve is the author of numerous books including his latest, “Lessons in Leadership.” Steve also provides executive leadership coaching and seminars for a variety of corporations and organizations both regionally and nationally.

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