Tough On Results, Gentle On People

“Human kindness has never weakened the stamina or softened the fiber of a free people. A nation does not have to be cruel to be tough.”

When all that matters are numbers, eventually, people don’t matter. Great leaders consistently focus on people and performance. Be tough on results, gentle on people.

Set high standards, and serve your people. Results will follow. Don’t give up. I’ve seen too many leaders give in, and lower their standards to “be nice,” or taking a “no more mister nice guy” approach when results don’t move quickly. Create the balance and stay the course.

Tough on Results

Tough goals lead to breakthrough change. Tight standards lead to exceptional performance. Scary projects cause growth. Straight talk paves the road to improvement.

Winners want to improve and win. Allowing people to under achieve is mean. Serve through challenge. Energize through stretch.

  • Set aggressive targets
  • Maintain high standards of behavior
  • Demand quality and excellence
  • Hold people accountable
  • Require engagement
  • Talk straight about opportunities
  • Require great leadership
  • ?

Gentle on People

Scaffold growth. Inspire confidence. Take time to teach. Protect and defend. Shield the team from chaos.

  • Speak kindly
  • Offer support
  • Listen to concerns
  • Develop necessary skills
  • Celebrate behaviors
  • Allow mistakes
  • Reward teamwork
  • ?

The balance leads to tricky situations. Poor performers who don’t improve, will need to go. Remain compassionate and help them find a better fit. High-performers who are mean to others, can’t stay either. Real leaders balance tough with gentle, and teach others through their actions.

Real leadershipThis is a continuation of the LGL REAL (Results, Energy, Authenticity, and Learning) Leadership Series. Starting with “Results.” To have the discussion delivered directly to you, please enter your email to subscribe.

Posted in Communication and tagged , , .

Karin Hurt

Karin Hurt, Founder of Let’s Grow Leaders, helps leaders around the world achieve breakthrough results, without losing their soul. A former Verizon Wireless executive, she has over two decades of experience in sales, customer service, and HR. She was recently named on Inc's list of 100 Great Leadership Speakers and American Management Association's 50 Leaders to Watch. She’s the author of 3 books: Winning Well: A Manager's Guide to Getting Results-Without Losing Your Soul, Overcoming an Imperfect Boss, and Glowstone Peak.


  1. “Love em and lead em.” Jim Kouzes co-author of The Leadership Challenge

    I’m not a fan of the word tough. I prefer direct communication with focus on the team member.

    I never cared for bosses that were “tough.” The bosses I’d run through a brick wall for where the ones who got to know me as a person.

    The “tough” bosses? I, like most followers, would only do the minimum.

    Whereas the leader who cared about me as a person, had the most impact on my growth both personally and professionally.

    Not many leaders are willing to love there constituents. That’s why there are very few “true” leaders.

    • Steve, what a beautiful reply. Thank you. I’m with you… gentle on the people, and inspire them to do more than they thought they ever could.

    • Nice Steve. That is how you make a good blog comment.

      I sat in on a meeting with a “tough” boss the other day and watched her be sarcastic and condescending. I see her moving things forward, but I could sense that her staff were disengaging.

    • Jim, love your comment on how to write a great comment…. Steve is always good for a zinger (AND he’s my most frequent commenter to date 😉 Nice combo. Jim, I sat in that meeting too 😉 Of course, not really the same meeting, but sounds familiar. Thanks for adding that.

    • Steve, may I remind you… you are a vegetarian? 😉 Actually it’s funny. When I married my husband he was a vegetarian. One of my greatest mentors gave us a beautiful set of really expensive steak knives. I was a bit dumbfounded. Such a generous and beautiful gift, but we wouldn’t be eating steak. Now we both do…. somehow I think she knew. We use them all the time and think of her.

    • Ali….hmmmm…. what I was getting to there is after you try and try…. if folks aren’t engaging, it may be time to have the table stakes conversation. What would engage them? What would energize them… it may not be what you have to offer. Having that tough conversation sometimes uncover that they’re in the wrong place.

      You want to communicate that this team is a high-energy team, accomplishing great work… inspire them to be a part, and if they are not willing to give that, help them find a better fit.

    • Karin- I hope that I am not an egoist. However; your response prompts me to add the following comment.
      Last night I uploaded a presentation on “Turning defects into value”. I give example of how intentionally you make a small defect in a product so that it gains better human value.

      The question that percolates in my mind- likewise, how a leader may turn human defects into high value?
      Yes, the difficulty is in the simplicity of answering this question

  2. Great Post Karin,

    I handle the balance by always coming from a place of heart, as my daughter said to me the other day, Mom I know you love me deeply, but sometimes you are so strict with me, it shows me that you care a lot, you don’t want me to get hurt or get into trouble.

    And the leadership lesson is: If the foundation of a leader is care and love – the tough side will be experienced as empowerment or having your back.

    Lay the foundation of love first and allow the rest to fall into place.


    • Lolly, Thanks so much. That’s beautiful. I’m so glad your daughter feels that, and can articulate it. Thanks for sharing that important story.

    • Dan, Great to see you hear. Really appreciate your support and insights. Love that. Tough includes accountability… what’s more important than holding people accountable to their dream? YES!

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