Triple crown leaders—those who aspire to build excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations—have learned to go beyond their natural leadership style, flexing between what we call “steel and velvet,” the hard and soft edges of leadership, depending on the situation and the people involved.
Steel leadership demands excellent results, insists on ethical practices, and resists the allure of short-term thinking. Velvet leadership patiently builds organizational character, encouraging collaboration and using persuasion, not position power.
Triple crown leaders invoke steel when necessary but employ velvet leadership much more often.
This article dives deeper into the nuances of leading people with steel and velvet.
Leading People with Velvet
Most of the time, triple crown leaders treat their workers with a velvet touch. They value their people, understand that each person has unique talents waiting to be unleashed, and sincerely care for their well-being. In velvet, triple crown leaders don’t view their workers as means to the leaders’ ends. They understand their people are unique ends in and of themselves to be valued, protected, and enriched, never exploited. Velvet leaders are loyal to their people and accordingly receive loyalty in return.
Using velvet, the triple crown leaders find ways to inspire their workers. It may be through a meaningful purpose statement, shared values congruent with workers’ personal values, or an inspiring vision of their collective future. (See our article, “How to Create a Shared Purpose, Values, and Vision.”) Inspiration may evolve from frequent worker recognition, sincere praise before peers, and genuine efforts to develop people.
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.
Using velvet, triple crown leaders walk with their people. They don’t sprint ahead or demand forced marches at double-time paces that exhaust workers. In velvet mode, triple crown leaders are genuinely humble, even vulnerable enough to admit their mistakes publicly. They’re willing at times to follow a subordinate who has the passion or expertise to lead a project. Using velvet, triple crown leaders hold people accountable but also understand that there can be reasonable explanations for some missed deadlines.
Triple crown leaders who treat their workers with a velvet touch build high-performance teams that achieve excellent results. But velvet treatment all the time has risks.
Leading People with Steel
In steel mode, triple crown leaders have also learned to flex to the hard edge of leadership at times. Care for, respect for, and loyalty to one’s workers is essential, but toxic workers who undermine the culture and shared values of the organization are a growing cancer. After failed chances to reform, triple crown leaders terminate them.
Using steel, triple crown leaders realize that developing their workers is a key task of their leadership, but also understand that each worker must be committed to their own self-development. Workers can’t just sit back and expect the organization to develop them. They need to put time and effort into their own growth.
Triple crown leaders understand there are times to ask their people to run. When the organization has an urgent challenge, triple crown leaders use steel to enlist extraordinary time and effort. The triple crown leader has built the trust and credibility to generate this special effort.
During these critical times, triple crown leaders are confident and bold, clearly leading. They are holding people accountable to meet critical deadlines, encouraging creative ways to achieve them when conventional approaches have failed. This demanding accountability often unleashes previously unknown solutions that elevate the performance level of the organization.
In times of crisis or extreme stress, projection of vulnerability isn’t always helpful Criticism comes with the territory. Triple crown leaders put on coats of armor to deflect the arrows that are surely coming their way. Triple crown leaders have a soft heart and thick skin.
Steel treatment at these inflection points creates the grit and determination that catapults the organization to continue achieving excellent results ethically and sustainably no matter what external challenges arise. Occasional steel treatment ensures the organization’s survival during these challenging times.
Flexing between Steel and Velvet
Flexing between steel and velvet, depending on the circumstances and the people involved, is a critical and learnable leadership practice. Such flexing between steel and velvet should always be anchored in the organization’s shared values.
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.
Triple crown leaders learn to flex between steel and velvet in leading their team. Using velvet, they care for and are loyal to their people, inspiring them, humbly walking alongside them, following at times, and understanding that sometimes goals can’t be reached. But to be effective, triple crown leaders also use steel: separating toxic people, requiring people to take responsibility for their own development, and asking people to run hard at times. They confidently assert their leadership, insisting that people find creative ways to meet extraordinary challenges. They flex between steel and velvet, anchoring their behavior in the shared values.
- Are you stuck in one mode—in steel mode or in velvet mode—when leading people, or are you able to flex appropriately between them?
- If you’re using too much steel or velvet, who can you turn to for help in this critical leadership practice?
Tools for You
- Leadership Derailers Assessment to help you identify what’s inhibiting your leadership effectiveness
- Personal Values Exercise to help you determine and clarify what’s most important to you
- Alignment Scorecard to help you assess your organization’s level of alignment
- Traps Test (Common Traps of Living) to help you identify what’s getting in the way of your happiness and quality of life as you lead yourself
- Leadership Resources, including assessments, books, blogs, organizations, and podcasts
Postscript: Quotations on Leading People with Steel and Velvet
- If you want to achieve excellence, you can get there today. As of this second, quit doing less-than-excellent work.” -Thomas J. Watson, former chairman and CEO, IBM
- “I profoundly believe that there is always more than one ‘right way’ to achieve great results.” -Robyn Pearce, author
- “The only limit to the height of your achievements is the reach of your dreams and your willingness to work for them.” -Michelle Obama
- “Steel and Velvet Leadership”
- “Communicating with Steel or Velvet”
- “Getting Results with Steel or Velvet“
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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!