Setting an “edge” as a leader solidifies your position in the group and spurs on solid performance. You need to set your edge hard and you can ease up over time once your people are performing like they should.
An edge is an attitude, a tone, an expectation of accountability that compels your team to act on your authority and follow your lead. Many leaders think of themselves as co-directors of a movement and lead their teams more or less as peers. They equate an edge with creating an environment of intimidation, coercion, and fear, and shouldn’t we be well above that?
While there is certainly good reason to avoid the extremes, be careful not to be swayed by the notion that anything that compels another to act on your direction is wrong. Even charisma is defined as the “compelling” attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others. Folks revel in warmth when they please a charismatic leader, and warmth can be a huge unifier. But the fear of falling out of favor with a charismatic leader can be a powerful driver, and that can create an effective edge.
You have been around leaders with an edge your entire life. Think back to when you were a member of a sports team going through preseason training. If you disappointed your coach, he or she very likely reshaped your drive, technique, or willingness to listen by having you run extra laps or knock out a few extra pushups. Meet or exceed that coach’s expectations, and you avoided the extra laps and occasionally were rewarded with praise or a position of leadership on the squad.
Whatever method of praise they offer or punishment they inflict, good coaches embed the belief that you will receive a warm and fuzzy sensation for doing well and a cold and prickly one for not giving your all. The edge is established when your team knows where the extremes of praise and punishment lie — and when they have confidence that you’ll hold the line in between.
The point is that you are who you are, and your style has led you to the successes you’ve achieved in life. But if it hasn’t happened already, life on the point will test your mettle. When those moments arise, your team has to know that you value success over popularity.
Establishing Your Edge
No matter where you are on the pushover/tyrant spectrum, two rules of thumb apply: The first is start off a little harder, a little farther right of wherever you think your center point might be. The second is have a plan to move back to your center when it catches.
When you move to take over a new team or you move up within one you’ve been on for a while, your people need to know that you value success over popularity. No matter what your style of leadership, start off firm, a little to the right of your own center. For some that may mean smiling or talking less frequently. For others it may mean letting your question sit, without trying to minimize the uncomfortable silence by explaining it away or by offering options from which your team may choose.
When you start off hard, you always have the option to lighten up, but starting off easy will make turning up the heat a challenge and will put your people off balance while they get used to the new environment.
Whatever technique you use, set your edge at the start of your tenure and hold it until your team catches. Whether you are leading a sales team, a nonprofit named Benevolence, or a class of third-graders, to lead effectively you need to set an edge.
An edge will minimize whining and unfiltered complaints. It will cause people to prepare more before they step into your office and to think through solutions to problems before they seek your counsel. And it will build and reinforce their respect for you in ways you might not be able to predict.
– Colonel JV Venable [USAF, Ret], author of Breaking the Trust Barrier: How Leaders Close the Gaps for High Performance, is a Fighter Weapons School graduate who went on to lead the USAF Thunderbirds and combat group of 1,100 American airmen in the Persian Gulf. For more information, please visit http://jvvenable.com/ and connect with JV on Twitter and LinkedIn.
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