What's the True Test of a Tough Leader?

Last Updated Mar 30, 2010 11:07 AM EDT

When I ran my first business, I was tough. Even my most enthusiastic employees, when giving 360º feedback, said I was tough -- but in a good way. I was proud of my reputation. It was a better, I thought, if men didn't think I was a pushover.

One of my jobs was negotiating big contracts with labor unions. Two months into my job, one of these came up for renewal, so the union boss invited me out to lunch, obviously wanting to size me up. We met in a Chinese restaurant; he ordered the food.

As we talked, the most disgusting array of foods began to arrive: ducks' tongues, chicken's feet, gizzards and various body parts. It was clearly a test: was I tough enough to eat it? "If you wanted to intimidate me," I thought to myself, "Boy, did you pick the wrong girl." I thought, gratefully, of a stern upbringing in which clearing my plate was mandatory.

I ate every mouthful. I was so tough.

For many years I told that story with relish. Then, when I was running my first software company, we kept running into problems. We never shipped anything on time, the software was too buggy, nobody would give me a straight answer. The only thing we seemed good at developing was rage and frustration.

Driving to pick my daughter up from school one night, I thought again about the Chinese meal and imagined telling it to her. Suddenly, it didn't seem like such a great story. Was that how I wanted her to remember her mother: the toughest woman in town? I realized with a shock how stupid I'd been. Why did I eat all that disgusting food? I should just have signaled to the waiter and ordered something I liked. Instead of playing someone else's game, I should have played my own.

That night I realized why the company wasn't thriving. I was trying to impress everyone -- my investors, my customers -- with how aggressive I could be. But I wasn't playing my game; I was playing theirs. What we needed wasn't toughness; it was intelligence. What I needed to inspire in other people wasn't fear; it was confidence that I wouldn't commit to impossible targets.

I needed to stop being a manager and start being a leader.

Today I wonder what would have happened if my daughter hadn't provoked that epiphany. Would I ever have figured out how to lead my business? Now I call this the Dinner Time Test. When you're about to do something important at work, picture yourself describing it over a family dinner. Does it make you feel good? Are you sure you're playing your game and not somebody else's? If it's the latter, you may be a manager, but you're not really a leader.

Have you had a similar epiphany or developed your own method of testing important decisions? Tell me about it in the comments.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.