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How Nice Leaders Become Angry

By Patrick Lencioni

Anger is a strange and hard-to-understand emotion, especially when otherwise affable or thoughtful people become leaders and start to exhibit it more and more frequently. The people being led then begin to question what they thought they knew about their leaders (e.g., CEOs, department heads, principals, pastors), and the leaders themselves often wonder whether they’ve suddenly given in to the dark side of power. What’s particularly strange and ironic about this scenario is that in many cases unintended anger on the part of leaders actually results in their tendency to want to be too nice.

Too many leaders begin their tenures determined to be more likable and beloved than the leaders they’ve worked for in their own careers–and that is where the problem starts. In their less-than-conscious pursuit of approval, they withhold criticism for a missed deadline here and overlook a poor decision there, all in the name of empathy and reasonableness. Over time, the people who work for the leader naturally start to worry less and less about the consequences of making mistakes. And then one day, a slightly larger mistake occurs–and the leader blows a gasket.

The magnitude of that blown gasket seems way out of proportion to the mistake itself, because people don’t realize that it is actually a function of all of the mistakes that were overlooked in the past. It’s as though the leader is saying, “How could you people not appreciate all those other times that I let you off the hook without saying anything?!”

And then things can go from bad to worse when the kindhearted leader feels an onslaught of guilt, which is especially painful given his or her private commitment to being nicer than other leaders. One might think that this guilt would cause the leader to calm down and back off–and sometimes that happens. But sometimes this guilt exacerbates the problem, like pouring gasoline on a fire, and the leader thinks, “How could you people put me in a position to have to get angry and feel so guilty?”

In most cases, leaders can recover from these painful moments through genuine ownership of and repentance for their behavior. But if they don’t understand the underlying reason for their unintended and uncharacteristic outbursts, those outbursts can become a painful pattern.

The solution to all this isn’t to tell those leaders “don’t get so mad.” (Saying this to someone who’s angry is as ridiculous as telling someone who’s having an anxiety attack to “stop worrying.”) Instead, leaders who find themselves getting angrier over time need to understand that their feelings are not actually the problem. In fact, there is nothing wrong with having those feelings, which can often signal that something is wrong and needs to be addressed. What leaders need to change is how they deal with those feelings.

Leaders who are beginning to feel the initial signs of anger or frustration or deep disappointment need to stop and say something subtle to their direct reports like, “Hey, I’m starting to feel angry [or frustrated or deeply disappointed] here.” Putting that statement out there and letting people hear it and begin to deal with it is precisely what will prevent a leader from having to display that emotion. And this statement gives people the opportunity to change their behavior or performance rather than be on the receiving end of an irrational tirade.

The only way that leaders can succeed at this is if they realize that wanting to be nice or lenient is actually a selfish impulse. Instead, they should choose to be fair and firm and clear–and self-controlled. People appreciate those qualities a lot more than nice, anyway.


Bestselling author, consultant, and keynote speaker Patrick Lencioni pioneered the organizational health movement and is cofounder and president of the Table Group, a firm dedicated to making work more fulfilling by making organizations healthier. His numerous books (which together have sold over six million copies), and he has worked with thousands of senior executives and their teams in organizations that include Fortune 500 companies and nonprofits. He can be reached via www.tablegroup.com.

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