4 Ways Leaders Can Overcome the Fear of Conflict

It’s nauseating to hear – someone soft-shoe dancing around an issue because they’re afraid of hurting someone’s feelings. They do so because they might receive negative feedback in a 360 review that they were abrupt or too direct in delivering feedback on that issue. So rather than going the direct route, they water down their message until it’s a mealy mouthed blathering stream of meaningless crap (yes, I’m fired up as I’m writing this).

Let me ask you this – do you want to follow a “leader” who doesn’t speak his or her mind? Someone who is more concerned with how their actions will be perceived rather than saying what they really think? Do you want to follow a leader who is more interested in doing nothing wrong (and hence not doing much of anything) or would you rather follow someone who takes a stand for what they believe in and suffers the consequences as appropriate?

Me? I’ll choose option B.

Conflict avoidance has invaded Leaderville and it’s an ugly blight. IMPORTANT: realize, I’m not advocating or approving of hateful, cruel, rude, or offensive behavior and words (although some idiot won’t bother to read this sentence and they’ll leave an anonymous comment to the effect that I’m a hate-monger or some stupidity of similar ilk). Those words and behaviors have no place in any workplace (or our lives for that matter).

What I’m attacking is a belief that we as leaders can’t speak our minds because we might hurt someone’s feelings. It’s that mindset that erodes the core of leadership over time and turns it into gentle corrective actions that end up having no impact whatsoever. Sure, no one felt corrected or had their feelings hurt but they now effectively have no freakin’ idea what they’re supposed to do or what they did wrong in the first place because the message was diluted.

We need to fix this. Now. So here’s what I propose:

1. Take the But(t) Sandwich off the Menu

I’ve written before about how much I hate but(t) sandwiches. Starting and ending feedback sessions with some false flattery just so you can jam a big slice of nasty feedback in the middle is a waste of time. It’s disingenuous. It also destroys your credibility as a leader. Any time after that if you begin praising someone, they’ll simply be waiting for the “but…” even if it’s never coming. This approach to giving feedback is terrible. Stop it. Now. But(t) sandwiches are now off the menu.

2. Everyone Grow Up

Take your frickin’ binkies out of your mouths and put your blankies away in your Scooby Doo knapsacks. This ain’t kindergarten anymore folks. The feedback isn’t personal. If you screwed up, step up and take it like an adult. I’ve screwed up plenty of times. And yes, when I took my beatings they were VERY unpleasant. But I took them and acted on them.

When you get drilled for doing something wrong then go crying about it to your peers, it makes you look like an idiot. They know you screwed up. They know you’re simply deflecting blame. If we spent as much time and energy focusing on fixing the mistake and building our skills to prevent the next one as we do on complaining to our coworkers about how mean our boss was to us, maybe we would actually perform better. You make a lot of money. A lot is expected of you. Getting some pointed feedback and being mature about receiving it is in your job description.  A great leadership principle states “seek responsibility and take responsibility for your actions.”  Do it.

3. Take of the Soft Shoes and Put on the Boots

When you tiptoe around an issue, you come across as weak. More likely than not the recipient of the feedback knows what they did (or didn’t do). They just want you to get it over with. Dancing around the issue is a waste of time. It’s confusing. The recipient might walk away confused or with the wrong impression. None of these are good things.

Whether you’re going to saddle up and be more direct or not, you’ll need to take off the soft shoes and put on the boots. If you’re going to be direct, you’ll need the boots to deliver a swift kick in the behind. If you’re still going to dance around the issue, the boots will at least protect your ankles from the piles of crap that are rising and filling the room.

4. Lead

It’s not always a glamorous job. You’ve chosen to do it. Go be direct. Don’t deliberately hurt feelings but for crying out loud tell people what you really think.

If you’re avoiding conflict so you can fly under the radar and continue to advance your career, you have a comeuppance in your future. At some point your lack of direct communications will be your undoing. If you simply find being direct difficult and inherently unpleasant you might want to reconsider where you want to take your career. The higher you go, the less tolerance there is for bullcrap.

The best leaders I’ve ever met and worked for were direct. They were respectful of the individual, polite, and when needed, up in your grill with some pointed feedback. I know it made me a better performer. You’ve probably had similar experiences. Don’t you owe that same directness to your team? Shouldn’t they know exactly where they stand?

Being “nice” for the sake of avoiding conflict is dysfunctional. It will destroy your organization and your credibility in the long run. I call on each and every one of us to embrace candor and directness in the spirit of making our teams better. I think I’ve been direct enough in this post with what’s on my mind. Now it’s your turn…

Mike Figliuolo at thoughtLEADERS, LLC

43 Responses to “4 Ways Leaders Can Overcome the Fear of Conflict”

  1. Lead2BGreat says:

    Hi Mike,
    I have been reading your blogs for quite some time, and have been enjoying every bit of it. Mainly, your writings have helped me in learning in many areas of leadership and management. Thanks for sharing useful and informative writings.

  2. Mike Figliuolo says:

    @Anand (Lead2BGreat) – thanks! A comment like this goes a long way for me in terms of satisfaction with my writing. You're welcome! The only things I ask are:
    – implement the things you read here that are appropriate for your situation and
    – tell others about the blog – we grow mostly by referrals and word of mouth.

    Thanks again for being a reader.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Mike – well said. I used to be a "screamer" – ego centered and felt it was the way things should be. Until I realized that my own anxiety in dealing with an issue is what caused me to have a "direct" conversation rather than an open conversation. Wish I had learned these things sooner.

    Talking through issues is critical. I've worked for some men that, although they deserve a great deal of respect for what they've accomplished, AND, there is a great deal to be learned from them, they were also big on handing out books about leadership. Problem was, I'm not sure if they read the book themselves, because the example they set said otherwise.

    We have to learn to through fear out the window. That doesn't mean rush forward with horns out, taking no prisoners. It does mean to me, taking the time to have those unpleasant conversations. having them early on could mean avoiding a blow up at a later date that would have problematic consequences for all involved.

    It's up to the leaders to teach through what they do. Teacjing these skills to junior managers to me is the true legacy of a leader today. Simple, but not easy. Thanks for your words – keep pushing the message out there. I know this economy has produced fear in peoples hearts (who wants to lose their job in these times?), that doesn't mean there can't be conversations that benefit both parties.

  4. Tim Rethlake says:


    Getting "up in people's grills" has not been one of my strong suits in the past. Several months ago, I benchmarked (stole) a question that Marshall Goldsmith recommends using with your direct reports; "If you were reviewing your performance, what advice would you be giving yourself right now?". It's amazing how people always know in their gut when their performance is not on the mark and they also intuitively know the course corrections needed to attain the original goal. I've also found that when they don't have a good answer to this question, it often has a root cause in me not be clear enough in setting the original expectation.

  5. Mike Figliuolo says:

    @Anonymous and @Tim – great points and glad to hear the introspection is happening for both of you. It's hard to look at oneself and occasionally say "I suck at this and need to fix it." I applaud your bravery in doing so.

  6. Diane W. says:

    Mike – Outstanding article. No nonsense management makes sense. I've struggled with delivery on the not-so-great news that improvement is not only needed but necessary. I'm getting better at this each day, but it takes practice. Yes, I will print your article to review – on a regular basis. Another great remark from another one of your readers that I liked: "If you were reviewing your performance, what advice would you be giving yourself right now?" It's all good! Thanks for your insights- much appreciated.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Excellent advice BUT if not done masterfully by and experienced person, it will get you fired. That is unfortunate, but reality.

  8. Joseph says:

    Leadership is first and foremost not a popularity contest!
    Sometimes you have to perform the hard part of the job and take someone aside and tell them they are making mistakes. It should be done in a brief concise and to the point manner. But as a leader you also need to provide feedback on how to correct it so that it doesn't repeat.
    As a leader you need to ensure that your people have the tools and knowledge they need to get the job done.
    IF someone screwed up first analyze if you had provided everything they needed to get the job done. You could be screaming (not in the literal sense) at the wrong person.
    I am not advocating the But(t) Sandwich approach, I think Political Correctness has destroyed this country and our children for generations to come.
    So I say buck up get over it and do your job right. Yes it isn't easy for either side but guess what it has to be done from time to time.
    As a leader you will also learn from it and figure out how to keep it from happening in the future.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Interesting insight, but your simplistic view of how to manage with a singular style is naive. Direct criticism works with some people (especially in the military where the employee has to take it), but in the competitive world I have found that leadership through criticism fails most of the time. Eventually the best talent will make a mistake, and if they get chewed out for it without regard to the fact that they also are human, they will move on to a competitor. The competitor will reap the benefits of their training, experience, and creativity and you will be left wishing you weren't such a jerk. Leadership through respect, example, and positive reinforcement is far more effective in the real world than your myopic hardass approach.

  10. Mike Figliuolo says:

    Great comments all. I appreciate the way cutting through the BS is resonating for many of you.

    As for the last @Anonymous perspective – I hear and respect your points. I'm not advocating a myopic "be an ass for the sake of being an ass" approach. I call your attention to a coupla passages in the above post that you might have missed:

    "IMPORTANT: realize, I'm not advocating or approving of hateful, cruel, rude, or offensive behavior and words (although some idiot won't bother to read this sentence and they'll leave an anonymous comment to the effect that I'm a hate-monger or some stupidity of similar ilk)." – seems like I was like Nostradamus on this one… I guess you missed that part. Or you missed this one:

    "It's not always a glamorous job. You've chosen to do it. Go be direct. Don't deliberately hurt feelings but for crying out loud tell people what you really think."

    …or this one:

    "The best leaders I've ever met and worked for were direct. They were respectful of the individual, polite, and when needed, up in your grill with some pointed feedback."

    Nowhere in here have I advocated a singular style (and I encourage you to read some of the 200 other posts on this blog for other perspectives rather than a myopic focus on a single post). As for your assertion that "the military employee has to take it" you're dead wrong. You're using a stereotype perpetuated by Hollywood. That view is simplistic and naive as to how our armed forces *really* work.

    Sorry to be so blunt but I get kinda fired up having words put in my mouth and inaccuracies perpetuated in anonymous comments especially when I've gone to lengths to preemptively address points like the ones you raise.

    Sorry if that was too direct. I guess I just created the risk you'll leave and move on to a competitor's blog… 😉

  11. Judy Knight says:

    Great points, Mike. I work with lots of leaders and some are like bulls in china shops with conflict (no finesse at all) and others who seem to be very direct in some areas avoid conflict entirely with some team members they are afraid of losing. Talking to someone adult-to-adult about their performance, after making sure you have been clear on your expectations of that person, is the honest and most effective way to deal with difficult issues. Thanks for telling people to toughen up!

  12. Anonymous says:


    Thanks for the straightforward comments. The kids in our schools are messed up in part today because the teachers have to treat them all the same, no one is allowed to get their feelings hurt. Everyone needs to be told what a wonderful job they did even if it was poor. Teachers need to be respected and supported. So do bosses. If we have no authority or cannot identify work for what it is and have to be more concerned about our employees liking us than having a respect and recognition of our authority, it does create a mess. Thanks.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I couldn't agree more! I have been passed over for management positions because, despite my technical, diplomatic and organizational skills, I'm not afraid to face the music and tell it like it is. Your observation on the decline of the management skills due to the velvet glove approach is right on. Sorry to say, its indicative of the new generation of the feel good business community.

  14. Kelly Riggs says:

    Good stuff, Mike! First time I have read your blog (congrats on your association with SmartBrief)…really like your approach and writing style.


  15. jojo says:

    Wow – I this is the closest written description I've ever seen of my leadership style. Awesome points!

    When I first started out as a manager, my boss (and mentor to this day) advised me of the need to deal with things directly. Shirking my responsibility would force her to do it for me. Her words then are ones I hear often when I don't want to have that difficult conversation with an employee: "If I need to step in and do this for you, what the heck do I need you for?" That's enough to get me moving! Owning my responsibility for honest, candid and tactful feedback with employees is what I believe has helped me grow my career. It's also helped me teach and grow my staff into more lucrative positions.

    After reading this blog for the first time today, consider me a regular subscriber!

  16. Bigger Fish says:


    I love you. (See? I'm being direct!)

    For years there have been many in my company that ignore the herd of 12-ton white elephants standing in the middle of the office. I have always been relied upon to point out this herd, and am often perceived as the "hard-ass" because I'm doing so. It's as if you were channeling me! Thanks for putting this into writing! I'm forwarding it on to all those that don't have the ability to see the elephants!

  17. The Luch says:

    Hey Mike,
    This is my first time to your blog. Love how direct you are in your writing. It's just like me! It's funny how some people piss and cry about how you corrected their wrong, and gave them feedback, only to simply ignore their mistake.

    It isn't about being a hardass or a tyrant, it's about telling people what's on your mind. Being direct, open, and, often, blunt has been an asset for me. People not only respect you more, but they always know where you stand which actually helps increase comfort levels.

    Customers loved it because they could trust that I was steering them straight at all times. Employees loved it because they knew where they stood at all times with me. There is so much tip-toeing and other PC crap taught in management training today, and it's only to protect the company from lawsuits, it has nothing to do with advancing the company and meeting goals. I'd assume there is someone at the top that's looked at how playing paddy-cake is better for the bottom-line, but I'm probably giving too much credit.

    Great piece!

  18. Kathleen A. Paris says:

    Mike, I agree with your that the best thing a boss can do is be direct and honest about performance. But I think it's also important to acknowledge the things that are done well and correctly. I don't see that as mealy-mouthed, but rather as balanced. Ideally, a boss can use the things that are going well as a jumping off point for improvement as in, "I'd like you to give this the same attention you gave to the XYZ which was so successful." Thanks for a great blog!

  19. Mike Figliuolo says:

    WOW everyone! Thanks for all your wonderful insights, push back, ideas, and thoughts. Sorry I was quiet today and haven't responded until now – I was working with a wonderful client all day but I was very excited to see your comments coming in over the blackberry. I'm glad many of you enjoyed the post and it's clear it ticked a few people off too (this post got the most "1 star" ratings I've ever received on a post which is okay by me – I just wish those who left the 1 star rating would share their ideas and open some intelligent discourse on their position).

    You folks mean a ton to me. Your comments, readership, and support go a long way toward stoking the writing fire inside me. I appreciate your readership. All I can ever ask is you share what you learn here with others who would benefit as well! Thanks again.

  20. says:

    AWESOME Mike!

    I've been told "I was mean" before. My answer has and always will be: As an employer I'm entitled to be mean. Too bad. If they don't like it they can scratch. Loved the article!

  21. linda says:

    Great writing. I admire the time and thoughtfulness you put into your posts and the follow up comments. You've made some excellent points.

  22. Anonymous says:

    Mike, I think your advice is sound, and I wish more people practiced this. I, like you, go nuts when people beat around to bush to try to save my feelings. But I must take issue with one point. Immediately after saying that you do not condone using rude or offensive words, you said, "some idiot will…" Don't you think "idiot" is a rude and offensive word? Couldn't you simply have used the words, "somebody will?"

  23. Josh Stailey says:

    Great post, Mike. I've noticed that, in most organizations, the closest to your ideal can be found in sales. That's 'cause they are measured in one way: top-line performance. The results are stark and simple; salespeople that last are comfortable with that, and in general with no-nonsense interactions. Perhaps that's why sales is almost always the bad boys (no gender specificity intended)of the place. And maybe that's why most large organizations are dysfunctional…they corral off the WYSIWYGs and promote the "nice" people until the inmates run the asylum.

    One more thing (I can't help myself on this one): anonymous posters are usually idiots.

  24. mark allen roberts says:

    Enjoyed your post,
    Good leaders drive their teams to places they do not believe they can achieve.

    Keep in mind you can be direct, without being "a Prick – ly" person as I discuss in my blog and click on number 2.

    Mark Allen Roberts

  25. lorrwill says:

    Well as someone who has always been told they were too direct, you know this resonates with me.

    Seriously, what is wrong with the truth? That mambie-pambie dance of sugar-coating just wastes time. And instead of facilitating communication, can cause mis-communication (Such misunderstanding that the problem or situation must not be that bad when it is!)

    If you don't use personal insults or raise your voice, I do not consider directness as rudeness or meanness. But I have a soft spot in my heart for efficient problem solving.

    Deflecting responsibility and playing the blame game when you screw up is a big no-no with me, too. I own up to it, learn what I need to not repeat it and move on.

    Now being a minority woman of a certain age, I do support some 'political correctness' – the part that is codified by law. Some of the other (kissy butt, walking on eggshells) part really needs to go far away.

  26. Anonymous says:

    Good thoughts all Mr. Figliuolo. However, IMHO, many managers (it just takes a small percentage) don't know or don't care about the difference between the type of directness you advocate from offensiveness.

    As evidence of US mismanagement I submit that most cars sold in the US are made in the US. Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Hyundai, etc. have manufacturing plant in the US using US labor, but not old style US management. GM, Ford, and Chrysler use old style US management. And how's Detroit doing vis-a-vis Toyota, Nissan, Honda, and Hyundai?

  27. Chad H says:

    Mike – I understand this tactic with your own team but what about with other teams? If you need support from others across your organization, do you really recommend this approach?

  28. Mike Figliuolo says:

    @Anonymous re: my choice of "idiot" – way I see it is if I preemptively put that caveat in the post and say someone would be an idiot for doing exactly what I said (posting a comment without fully reading the post) then that qualifies them as an idiot. Seems like he/she self-selected into that one…

    @Anonymous #2 re: Detroit and the automakers (you guys really gotta start leaving names so this commenting thing is easier than numbering those who are anonymous) – I concur on the directness vs. offensiveness dynamic. I am, however, not willing to agree with broad-brushing an entire industry and saying that's the reason why they're not doing well. Product design, microeconomics, pension liabilities, consumer tastes, and a bajillion other things go into that performance. I'm sure there are some of the "old style" managers at all companies, foreign and domestic. I'm not sure it's exactly as simple as saying "Detroit uses old school management" unfortunately.

    @Chat – why wouldn't you be direct with someone whether they're on your team or not? I've found that directness on needs and performance with anyone is for the most part appreciated. It builds trust because people know where you're coming from. And if they trust you they're more likely to support you. I don't think organizational boundaries or softening things so I get what I want is a productive approach here IMHO.

  29. Stu Moring says:

    Mike, wasn't sure I would agree with you but wanted to explore your ideas, since it was billed as "are you mean enough?" I have tended to "dance" too much on human relations issues, but am working on being more direct. Some direct reports advised they wanted me to be more direct in an anonymous 360 review, but based on feedback from some evaluations, it appears they want me to do that with "someone else." After a couple of readings I agree that directness is a virtue, but some readers seem to imply it justifies meanness, or a focus on the negative. I learned in the military that a key to discipline is understanding what is important to the individual; one size does not fit all, so you have to manage the message so what you intend is what is received. It's fine to say those who don't agree can hit the road, but I would hate to lose a 90% excellent performer with one or two shortcomings because I focused too much on those problems. I realize you're not suggesting that, and I appreciate the perspective. In all, very thought provoking, which I guess was your intent. Stu

  30. Mike Figliuolo says:

    @Stu – that is perhaps one of the most measured, well thought out comments I've ever had someone leave on this blog. Thanks for going in with an open mind and reading for the real meaning. I applaud your willingness to experiment with different styles and see what works for you and your team members. Cheers also to your willingness to explore changing your style. Your team is lucky to have you as their leader.

  31. Janet says:

    I am getting ready to conduct 12 appraisals for my team this week. This is very helpful and clear. I have always been one to say things clearly and directly to people. ( not something that is supported at all in passive aggressive uber PC Seattle, unfortunately!) thanks for the support on this!

  32. JeffreyJDavis says:


    Great points. Unfortunately, leadership clarity and credibility are not always 100% consistent with being "likable and friendly". True constructive performance improvement often requires tough love.

    Works with our children, Works with our employees.

  33. Gina says:

    Sometimes being a leader means that you have to do the tough things- if you are firm, fair & consistent you will be respected for it. Being the nice, likable one all the time can get you into trouble. You don't want to be seen as the push over.

  34. Walt says:

    I enjoyed your article, even though the intro on the grab page was a tad misleading. Being direct is not the same as cruelty or meanness. Criticism and hard choices can be at the heart of dealing management decisions and motivation. Directness drives home the point and gets results or gives them pause to see what your next decision might be. Thanks; having been on all three sides (owner, manager and employee) I fully agree.

  35. Anonymous says:

    Great article. I work with many soft leaders that don't give direct feedback. As a result, there are several individuals who could be much stronger, but aren't. They haven't gotten the feedback or by the time the feedback arrived it was late and watered down. If you do something 50 times and the leader finally gets up the confidence to the deliver the feedback on screw up 51, it doens't work too well.

    That being said, I received some extremely strong, negative but properly delivered feedback this week. He could have softened it, but he didn't. He hit me over the head with it, but did it in private. My first instinct was to get defensive, but then I realized "he is right". I will make changes based on his feedback. I took it seriously, and it will probably better my career.

  36. […] you’d like, read the entire article: “4 Ways Leaders can Overcome the Fear of Conflict.” I’ve added my own take on his ideas […]

  37. […] This entry was posted in Conflict, Courage, Leadership and tagged resilience. Bookmark the permalink. ← The High Cost of Conflict […]

  38. Kirana says:

    i think to some extent you probably do have to bear in mind sensitivities (this coming from someone who is generally oblivious to such things). but i do agree that some people take the softy approach overboard. once a colleague sent me a request that was pretty vague, and it was not clear what he wanted from me. it was some work our manager assigned to him so she was cc’d. i shot back an email frankly but simply telling him that i didn’t understand what he wanted and i’d like him to be clearer on that, and kept our manager cc’d in case she would like to explain the task instead. i got slammed by our manager for that – basically for simply telling a colleague that i did not understand his message, without dressing it up with additional sensitivity words to account for his english being not as good. i checked up with him afterwards; he himself was fine with it.

    i mean, to me there will be communication barriers such as language proficiency, communication temperament etc. but i like to be straightforward and work around it rather than overcompensate, like how some people think the disabled needs to be cosseted rather than simply their disability worked around so they can contribute on equal terms. obfuscating in english to someone whose english is not very good, is probably a lot crueller than simply saying ‘i didn’t understand’.

  39. Neil says:

    I loved reading this blog; passionate, sincere and, you know what, imperfect.

    I do not say that as criticism but rather to illustrate part of the problem with leadership.

    You mention the guarded conflict stance, for fear of a 360 Feedback comment, as if we are supposed to be perfect. We are not and striving for perfection is crippling the performance of leaders and their reports alike. We get hemmed in by a whole raft of considerations instead of being bold enough to face the consequences.

    I agree with you entirely. Going out of your way to hurt to people is a mugs game for psychopaths. Giving someone some really good feedback, even if it challenges and chafes is so valuable.

    Conflict avoidance is neither leadership, not management. It is the absolution of both.

    Great post, thank you.

  40. […] more on this idea of conflict leadership and fear of conflict, see this blog article by Mike Figliuolo Share this:StumbleUponTwitterTumblrFacebookLinkedInPrintEmailLike this:LikeBe […]

  41. Johnonymous says:

    Leadership is an art, and few managers look at it that way.
    They take the approach that they achieved their success by doing what they’ve always been doing, and seldom look at how their attitudes and policies are affecting the team. There needs to be a balance of carrot and stick, and if a manager is all stick, employees want to jam it you-know-where.

    If an employee doesn’t respect you, they will not do a good job.
    I recently received some harsh feedback, but it was uninformed and uninspiring.
    I have a problem with one client out of 1500, and I’m the one with his head on the chopping block because that person is in a management position, and my manager can’t stand up for his employees. Seriously, I had a co-worker tell the mangy manager that they were micromanaging, and the complainant was fired promptly. He moved here from COMMUNIST CHINA. I think if someone from China tells you that you are micromanaging, you might want to take that somewhat seriously.

    Since my managers position is that they pay the bills, so they’re right, I will now endeavour to work from the inside to throw monkey wrenches into the works as much as possible. I will take EVERY opportunity I can find to throw these two managers under any bus I come across.
    If you can’t show your employees respect, then you deserve what you get.

    Proper management gets my undying respect and loyalty. I put in extra hours, working on my own time to accomplish tasks and making things go smoothly for everyone around me. The moment YOUR loyalty wavers, I am your most dangerous enemy.
    People like me work everywhere, and we are great employees, but if you dismiss your employees ideas and criticisms you are in danger of being ineffective and creating issues where there weren’t any.

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