Getting Results with Steel or Velvet—A Critical Leadership Practice Results with Steel or Velvet—A Critical Leadership Practice
Getting Results with Steel or Velvet— A Critical Leadership Practice

Triple crown leaders—those seeking to build organizations that are excellent, ethical, and enduring—go beyond their natural leadership style, flexing between the hard edge of steel and the soft edge of velvet, depending on the situation and the people involved. (See our related article, “Steel and Velvet Leadership.”) They acknowledge their varying approaches referencing the organization’s shared values.

This article dives deeper into getting results for your organization using steel and velvet.


Getting Results with Velvet Leadership

Getting Results with Velvet Leadership

In velvet mode, triple crown leaders are coaches of their workers. They don’t micromanage their people. Instead, they leave their people free to perform their work their own way. They coach them along the way.

When people mistakes, the leader asks them what they learned, since the best way to develop skills is experientially. Triple crown leaders encourage people to learn from the experience and let go of the failed results. Of course, triple crown coaches intervene if they sense a serious mistake is imminent that would jeopardize the organization.

Operating frequently in velvet mode, triple crown leaders focus on the process the workers are using rather than the results to help their colleagues learn the importance of good processes. In their velvet leadership, triple crown leaders patiently extend reasonable levels of trust to their people, gaining trust back for their belief in the workers. In so doing, they build higher levels of trust in the organization.

In velvet mode, triple crown leaders explain the existing rules and acknowledge that in some circumstances some rules can be stretched to find creative new ways to achieve important goals. They encourage their people to find those new avenues. In velvet mode, triple crown leaders ensure their people are taking time to renew themselves and not burn out. Triple crown leaders set a good example by taking time in some form of sanctuary for personal revitalization.

Leaders should be in velvet mode much more often than steel mode. But there are times when steel leadership mode is necessary.

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.


Getting Results with Steel Leadership

Getting Results with Steel Leadership

At critical times, triple crown leaders flex to the hard edge of leadership—to steel mode. There are times when they need results now. The desired outcomes must be immediate. Workers must persist regardless of the difficulties. The circumstances demand intensity and perseverance.

Effective leadership is not about making speeches or being liked;
leadership is defined by results not attributes.”
-Peter Drucker, Austrian-American management consultant, educator, and author

In steel mode, triple crown leaders communicate that some work is so critical that we can’t blindly trust that everything is fine. We must “trust and verify” certain matters. In those circumstances, there can be no breaking the rules, no room for creative explorations. The consequences of a mistake would be devastating. Steel demands 100 percent adherence to the proven practices.

In challenging circumstances, such as a crisis, some sacrifices are expected—longer hours, more travel, vacations postponed. Time for rest and relaxation will come later. Right now, an all-out effort is necessary for survival. Triple crown leaders set the example of such focused commitment.

When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses—only results.”
-Ken Blanchard, leadership author and consultant

By saving the use of steel for such exceptional circumstance, triple crown leaders build the trust and credibility for people to step up to these challenges. Such steel mode cannot be a constant or frequent practice. It’s not sustainable. With too much steel, people will burn out or leave.

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.


Flexing between Steel and Velvet to Get Results

Triple crown leaders have mastered the ability to flex between steel and velvet depending on the circumstances and the people involved. Not every tough situation requires extreme steel from everyone. Triple crown leaders hone their judgment to know when and how far to flex along the steel and velvet spectrum. It can’t be 100% velvet or 100% steel for everyone all the time.

The point on the steel and velvet spectrum may even vary by department or geographical area. The critical leadership practice is to flex along the spectrum explaining to your workers the circumstances involved and acknowledging that this movement is consistent with and anchored in the organization’s shared values.



Triple crown leaders flex between steel and velvet leadership mode. Velvet leaders coach workers, encouraging them to learn from their mistakes and let the failed results go. They emphasize good process and extend trust patiently. They allow some rules and boundaries to be exceeded in some cases to find better ways to operate. Triple crown leaders also encourage their people to renew themselves.

But sometimes exigent circumstances demand steel leadership. In steel mode, leaders hold people accountable for achieving results now. They can’t tolerate failure. Leaders verify critical operations and ensure that people are following certain rules to the letter. These all-out efforts aren’t sustainable, but such steel leadership will help ensure the organization survives.


Reflection Questions

  1. Do you use velvet leadership most of the time to achieve the results your organization requires?
  2. Do you use steel leadership selectively and infrequently, saving it for critical times?
  3. Do you have sufficient trust and credibility with your people to be able to flex between steel and velvet?
  4. If not, what might you do to develop such trust and credibility?

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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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! Results with Steel or Velvet—A Critical Leadership Practice

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