Communicating with Steel or Velvet–A Critical Leadership Practice with Steel or Velvet–A Critical Leadership Practice
Communicating with Steel or Velvet— A Critical Leadership Practice

Article Summary:

Many leaders don’t tailor their communication style to the situation. Effective leaders flex between steel and velvet (hard- and soft-edge) communication, depending on the situation and the people involved.


Of the five advanced leadership practices for building an organization that’s excellent, ethical, and enduring (from our book, Triple Crown Leadership), “steel and velvet” seems to be the most intriguing to many people.

Steel and Velvet

Triple crown leaders have learned to invoke the hard edge of leadership (steel) that demands excellent results, insists on ethical practices, and resists the allure of short-term thinking. These leaders have also learned to use the soft edge of leadership (velvet) that patiently builds organizational character, encouraging collaboration and using persuasion, not position power. With velvet, leaders unleash colleagues to become fellow leaders and co-creators.

Triple crown leaders have learned to go beyond their natural leadership style, flexing between steel and velvet depending on the situation and the people while anchoring their decisions in the shared values. (See our article, “Steel and Velvet Leadership.”) This article dives deeper into the nuances of communicating with steel and velvet.

Leadership Derailers Assessment

Take this assessment to identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness. It will help you develop self-awareness and identify ways to improve your leadership.


Velvet Communication

When in velvet mode, triple crown leaders project a positive and optimistic demeanor. They convey a feeling of confidence about the direction of the organization to inspire their colleagues.

Operating in velvet mode most of the time, you’ll want to be collaborative to engage with your colleagues and garner their best ideas for the organization. You’ll want to seek their input, asking questions, and actively listening to their thoughts and feelings.

Velvet communication takes patience and a genuine belief that each of your colleagues has insights and ideas about how to improve the organization. From the tone of your voice to your body language and facial expressions, your velvet demeanor should project your sincere interest in what they express. You’re communicating, “Yes, I hear you and will consider this input.”

If your colleagues are frustrated with things, you’ll empathize with them. You may not agree with all they express, but there’ll likely be some truth in what they share. Those nuggets are often golden.

When decision time comes, you’ll try to persuade your colleagues what needs to be done. You’ll express your thoughts as drafts based on their input and your own ideas. You’ll welcome their input for improving your initial ideas. As a result, you’ll be viewed as open-minded and receptive. You’ll be unleashing their latent talents. Your organization will flourish.

Velvet is your most frequent communication practice and one that will build your organization’s capabilities.

But taken too far, with every decision being up for input before you decide, people may misconstrue velvet as indecision and weakness. People understand there must be certain boundaries that can’t be crossed. There must be certain behaviors that aren’t permitted.


Steel Communication

Sometimes, you’ll need to use your authority in the hierarchy of your organization to indicate something must be done or done a certain way. You’ll tell people what’s required or forbidden. You’re setting firm boundaries. You’re establishing dictates that must be honored. There’s no discussion. You’ve decided.

If times are tough, you’ll be grounded in reality, not sugarcoating the situation. You don’t project fear or hopelessness. You’ll convey confidence that you can survive these tough times by working together and holding each other accountable.

Your communication should be firm and respectful. There’s no need for a loud voice or anger. Your message should acknowledge the shared values of the organization, explaining your decision on that foundation. There’s to be no more debate, no more mumbling afterwards in the hallways. For those who might have disagreed with your instruction, they need to “get over it” and move on, respecting your decision and the authority behind it.

Such hard-edge communication isn’t to be used often. If it’s overutilized, people will shut down and just await your orders. Your organization will seriously underperform as a result.

In a crisis in which there’s an existential threat to the organization, you’ll have to use steel communication often. You’ll emphasize that rapid decision-making is essential. Ideally, you’ve created a reservoir of trust and credibility with your colleagues so you’ll have their support during the crisis.

Steel communication should be used much less often, but it’s essential to establish and enforce critical boundaries and behaviors, especially in a crisis.

Personal Values Exercise

Complete this exercise to identify your personal values. It will help you develop self-awareness, including clarity about what’s most important to you in life and work, and serve as a safe harbor for you to return to when things are tough.



In general, velvet communication—collaborating, asking questions, actively listening, being patient, believing in the capabilities of people, persuading rather than telling, and being open to input—should be used much more often. Use steel communication—using your authority, being decisive, setting boundaries, enforcing shared values, and instilling accountability—sparingly.

Effective leaders flex between steel and velvet communication depending on the situation and the people involved but always anchoring their messages in the shared values.


Reflection Questions

  1. Do you communicate with velvet most often?
  2. Do you flex to steel occasionally to set boundaries and enforce critical behaviors?
  3. When you communicate in steel or velvet, do you acknowledge the organization’s shared values?


Tools for You:

Alignment Scorecard

When organizations aren’t aligned, it can reduce performance dramatically and cause frustration and dysfunction. With this Alignment Scorecard, you can assess your organization’s level of alignment and make plans for improving it.


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Postscript: Quotations on Steel and Velvet Communication

  • “The art of communication is the language of leadership.” -James Humes, author
  • “Communication is a skill that you can learn. It’s like riding a bicycle or typing. If you’re willing to work at it, you can rapidly improve the quality of every part of your life.” -Brian Tracy, author
  • “When the trust account is high, communication is easy, instant, and effective.” -Stephen R. Covey, author and educator
  • “Questions are taken for granted rather than given a starring role in the human drama. Yet all my teaching and consulting experience has taught me that what builds a relationship, what solves problems, what moves things forward is asking the right questions.” -Edgar H. Schein, author

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Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, and award-winning authors. They are co-authors of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards. Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or get their monthly newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps! with Steel or Velvet–A Critical Leadership Practice

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