Somewhere in the range between passive and aggressive behavior is the perfect mix for the most effective leader: assertive. Assertiveness gets a bad rap because it’s common to link assertiveness to being pushy or rude. However, the proper assertive approach is respectful, demonstrates confidence and allows for others to present alternatives.
Good assertive behavior often starts out with an aggressive appearance. A leader, or team member, states a position with confidence and no signs of being indecisive. It is presented as a starting point. If nobody offers a rational argument that refutes the position or a suitable replacement, then the assertiveness was positive and prevented analysis paralysis. The behavior is only aggressive if the person that makes the assertion will not consider data or rational alternatives presented from other potential contributors. Even then, a leader will often be faced with alternatives that both seem to have merit and they will have to select one over the other. If the decision is based on data or experience then s/he is merely being decisive, not aggressive.
Every good leader should feel obligated to share their thoughts, feelings and desires, which takes assertion. Their organization is looking to the leader for vision, strategy, guidance, direction and, well, leadership. If the strategy of the organization is a well-kept secret then there is no leader; they are just letting commerce happen to them. The same is true for team members. The top of your team or organization has you on their team to contribute. Simply taking the “I’ll go with whatever the rest of the team wants to do” approach is like saying, “I don’t want to contribute to this team”, unless it is an area about which you genuinely have no knowledge.
One of the top reasons why organizations, departments or project teams fail is because of the inability of their leader to be decisive. The ability to decide is one of the most important traits of a leader. The tool used to signify that a decision has been made is assertion. As a team member, we’ve all experienced a leader’s message that lacks the energy of conviction, or is so distorted with politics or “escape clauses”, that we have a difficult time getting behind the direction. Those of us that are lucky enough to have followed a leader with passion and vigor in their message, confidence in their direction and the humility to admit they were wrong, if they need to change direction, know that such behavior is always unifying, energizing and contagious.
Assertiveness is also a measure of the integrity of a leader. A passive leader can act honorably and not do what is wrong. However, integrity is made up of morality (not doing what is wrong) and character (doing what is right). Doing the right thing takes courage and an assertive behavior. If your child comes home from school and tells you that some of the other kids were calling another child fat, but you shouldn’t worry because your kid didn’t participate. That’s morality, and it’s good. However, a good question for your child might be, “Did you tell the other kids that what they were doing was wrong and they should stop?” That’s having the character to do what is right. It takes courage and it only happens with the use of assertion. It is also a trait that most people are willing to enthusiastically follow.
The rate of innovation and change in today’s business world requires constant evaluation for the need for course correction. We used to worry about “our practices”. Then we targeted “best practices”. Now, it’s clear that you will be left behind of you are not looking toward “next practices” (Mike Myatt makes this assertion in “Best Practices – Aren’t” (11/18/11, Forbes online)). Passive behavior has never led the charge for positive change. Indeed, if the primary focus is to “not ruffle feathers”, the organization has charted a course to failure. If the focus is profit, excellence and efficiency and the leader is data driven, logical, decisive and assertive the organization will challenge the status quo and find new ways to accomplish their goals and rising to even greater challenges.
Your opinion matters. The only way we know that you have one is for you to tell us. That’s being assertive. It doesn’t mean you should stick to classical assertiveness techniques like the “broken record” approach of repeating your position until you get your way. Rather, share your ideas and be willing to adjust your direction when confronted with compelling data. Course correction is a sign of maturity and shows that you are logical and willing to learn. If you were assertive enough to provide the team a starting point you have done them a great service.