In our book, Triple Crown Leadership, based on extensive research and interviews with leaders in 61 outstanding organizations in 11 countries, we identified five advanced leadership practices for building an organization or team that’s excellent, ethical, and enduring.
One of these practices has most intrigued the leaders we work with. Here we elaborate on how you can “flex” your leadership style between the hard and soft edges of leadership, between what we call “steel and velvet.”
Steel is the hard edge of leadership, demanding excellent results and insisting upon ethical and sustainable practices. Steel leadership uses the power of positional authority and strength of will.
Organizations need steel from their leaders to obtain the results they need. And to address tough issues that most of us would prefer to avoid, like dealing with poor performance or toxic behavior.
Though tough, steel leadership is not bullying, intimidating, or manipulative. It doesn’t use fear to maintain power ruthlessly. It’s not the iron fist inside the velvet glove. Steel holds people accountable for the sacrosanct imperatives of the organization. In short, leaders invoke steel for a worthy purpose.
What, exactly, does steel leadership entail? It includes:
- Using power
- Showing toughness
- Demonstrating decisiveness
- Instilling discipline
- Leveraging confidence
- Enforcing decisions
- Ensuring execution
- Instilling accountability
“Executives owe it to the organization and to their fellow workers
not to tolerate nonperforming individuals in important jobs.”
– Peter Drucker, consultant and author
Leaders should use steel sparingly. When a leader uses too much steel too often, people suppress their input and ideas. The people just acquiesce to the leader and shut down. Steel-only leadership is unhealthy.
Steel-only leadership is unhealthy.
“The soft stuff is the hard stuff. Period.”
– Alan Webber, mayor of Santa Fe
Velvet is the soft edge of leadership. It patiently builds organizational character, encouraging collaboration and using persuasion, not position power. With velvet, leaders unleash colleagues to become fellow leaders and co-creators.
Velvet leadership draws upon humility. It shows confidence in the team and involves listening, asking questions, nurturing, praising, and thanking people.
Many people tend to discount the soft edge of leadership, even though it’s essential. Some of the most impressive and transformational leaders in modern history—such as Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, and Mahatma Gandhi—have leveraged velvet leadership to great effect.
“Things that are hard to measure often get discounted.”
– Brian Chesky, co-founder & CEO, Airbnb
In summary, velvet leadership includes:
- Developing relationships
- Collaborating effectively
- Persuading people
- Demonstrating humility
- Showing vulnerability
- Listening deeply
- Building consensus
- Nurturing people
- Recognizing others
- Thanking people for their efforts
However, velvet-only leadership can fail to get the results the organization needs. It can be wishy-washy and invite inaction.
Velvet-only leadership can fail to get the results the organization needs.
The key isn’t steel. And it isn’t velvet. It’s both.
More specifically, the key is for leaders to learn to flex appropriately between steel and velvet, depending on the situation and the people involved.
Flexing for Context and People
Triple crown leadership requires leaders to flex between steel and velvet, stepping out of their natural tendencies:
- The dominating person practices listening better.
- The reflective person acts decisively when needed.
- The cautious person finds the courage to speak up, even as a “voice of one” on an essential issue.
That’s why this is so hard. Leaders must transcend their natural tendencies—the approaches most comfortable to them—and do what’s required, even though it feels awkward and hard for them. That’s, in part, why great leadership is so hard—and rare.
One key to flexing is to understand the context, judging each time whether to move toward the hard or soft edge. For example:
- If the organization needs more discipline to stay withing ethical boundaries, then more steel is essential.
- If the organization needs more collaboration, with people feeling heard about their concerns, then it’s time for more velvet.
Another key to flexing is to understand the people involved. Are we dealing with engineers or salespeople? Teachers or students? Volunteers or professionals? Do we have a mix of different ages, genders, experience, and education? It’s essential to adjust for the people involved.
Good leadership is situational.
Anchoring in the Shared Purpose and Values
As leaders flex, however, how can they avoid perceptions of inconsistency (one day invoking steel and another day using velvet), which can undermine credibility?
First, always lead consistently by pointing to the organization’s shared purpose and values. Such anchoring builds organizational character.
To avoid the appearance of inconsistency, leaders should take the time to explain, especially when invoking steel, why they’re taking those actions and how their actions remain consistent with the organization’s purpose and values.
Don’t assume people know your rationale or intentions. They can’t read your mind. Explaining how what you’re doing fits the purpose and values reinforces them, inculcating them into the organization’s culture.
When to Use Steel Leadership?
The top question we get about this is when to use steel leadership. There are two main scenarios that require steel.
First, when something critical is in jeopardy. For example, when one or more aspects of what we call the “triple crown quest” is at risk:
- Excellent: Failure to get sufficient results.
- Ethical: Violations of the shared values, or unethical or illegal behavior.
- Enduring: Failure to build a foundation for endurance and sustainability; or damage to the organization’s culture, a key to long-term success.
Second, when the leader has gathered extensive input from the top team but decides to go in a different direction: “I know you all think we should do X, but I’ve decided we need to do Y.” The leader should immediately follow with, “And here’s why…”
Note that a great leader must do this sometimes but also strike a balance. They shouldn’t do it too much (otherwise, talented people will leave, since they’ll wonder why they’re even there if they always get over-ruled). But they also shouldn’t do it too little (potentially leading to trouble, since the leader has a unique perspective and instincts that others may not have in some cases).
Learning How to Flex
Flexing your leadership style doesn’t come naturally to most. It’s a learned behavior. How can you learn to flex between steel and velvet?
- Ascertain if you’re mostly steel or velvet. Most of us tilt one way or the other, from 55% in one direction to 90% or more. Ask someone who knows you well and your most trusted colleagues which way you tilt.
- Reveal your style-tilt to colleagues and ask for their help. “Hey, I think my leadership style is naturally more X than Y. I’m trying to get better at flexing between steel and velvet. Will you help me?“
- Ask for help from someone with an opposite style. Ask them for tips and be sure to reciprocate. Solicit their feedback on how you’re doing and what you can improve.
- Practice, practice, practice. Like most learned skills, flexing your leadership style is hard at first. It gets easier over time and, with enough practice, may become second nature, or at least manageable.
Good leaders don’t stay in the comfort zone of their natural leadership style. They recognize there are hard and soft edges to leadership. And they’re willing to experience personal discomfort in service of larger organizational aims.
Steel holds people accountable for results. Velvet empowers others to lead. Organizations need both from their leaders.
Good leaders flex between those edges based on the situation and the people involved, but always anchored to the shared purpose and values. Flexing between steel and velvet will make you a better leader.
Summary: Steel and Velvet
- Steel-only leadership fails.
- Velvet-only leadership fails.
- Effective leaders flex between steel and velvet, regardless of their nature, depending on the situation and the people.
- Invoke steel when critical factors—such as the imperative to achieve excellent results ethically and sustainably—are in jeopardy, effectively becoming the “Chief Execution Officer.”
- Communicate your rationale when using steel.
- Use velvet much more often to nurture the development of your team, effectively becoming the “Chief Culture Officer.”
- Which is your natural tendency, steel or velvet?
- Are you avoiding the other edge of leadership, even though it’s needed sometimes?
- How will you begin addressing that, starting today?
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.
Postscript: Inspirations on Steel and Velvet Leadership
- Steel Leadership: “When it comes to standards, as a leader, it’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. When setting expectations… if substandard performance is accepted and no one is held accountable—if there are no consequences—that poor performance becomes the new standard. Therefore, leaders must enforce standards. Consequences for failing need not be immediately severe, but leaders must ensure that tasks are repeated until the higher expected standard is achieved.” – Leif Babin in Extreme Ownership
- Steel Leadership: “I had to take complete ownership of what went wrong. That is what a leader does—even if it means getting fired. If anyone was to be blamed and fired for what happened, let it be me.” – Jocko Willink in Extreme Ownership
- Velvet Leadership: “…a boss’s ability to achieve results had a lot more to do with listening and seeking to understand than it did with telling people what to do; more to do with debating than directing; more to do with pushing people to decide than with being the decider; more to do with persuading than with giving orders; more to do with learning than with knowing.” – Kim Malone Scott in Radical Candor
- Velvet Leadership: “When you’re the leader, it is really hard to get good and honest feedback, no matter how many times you ask for it. One trick I’ve discovered is that I try to speak really openly about the things I’m bad at, because that gives people permission to agree with me, which is a lot easier than pointing it out in the first place.” – Sheryl Sandberg, Meta Platforms COO, former Google executive, author
- Steel and Velvet: “…effective leadership requires a mixture of soft and hard power skills that I call smart power.” – Joseph S. Nye, Jr. in The Powers to Lead
- Steel and Velvet: “…peacetime and wartime require radically different management styles. Interestingly, most management books describe peacetime CEO techniques and very few describe wartime.” – Ben Horowitz in The Hard Thing About Hard Things
- Steel and Velvet: “Leading in wartime is different than leading in peacetime. Peacetime leadership is about nurturing people and co-creating with them, gently pushing them along at times, while difficult circumstances call for a more directive style. Leadership is very situational. Understanding where people are—who needs to be creatively challenged, and who needs to be more directed—is an art.” – Lorrie Norrington, former President, eBay Marketplaces
Bob Vanourek and Gregg Vanourek are leadership practitioners, teachers, trainers, 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, and called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great.” Check out their Leadership Derailers Assessment or sign up for their newsletter. If you found value in this, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!