Blog: In Defense of the Cold Hearted Leader

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In Defense of the Cold Hearted Leader

There are times when business circumstances demand a tough boss to communicate rough business decisions.
In Defense of the Cold Hearted Leader

A tough manager is not always the bad guy. Sometimes, she is exactly what the doctor ordered!

“So when we shut down these processes, the savings from the reduced headcount will shore up the P&L by about x%.”

“No performance, no bonus – my empathies – we’re not doing social service here.” 

“Just chop off the tail!”

We have all heard the above lines at some point or the other at our workplaces. And we have all suffered the ‘tough boss syndrome’. Yes! Several times in one’s career comes a manager who can be described in one word – ruthless! With a heart as cold as a witch – and a gargantuan left brain!

Laser focused, aggressive on numbers and metrics, rabid about deadlines and a believer in ‘corporate punishments’. Nicknamed after sundry dictators by the team and the subject of many rude conversations!

There are times when business circumstances rather demand the services of just such an individual — typically, when the management needs to declare a state of ‘Emergency’ or temporarily suspend some fundamental rights particularly in situations such as:

  1. Profit slide: Shareholders have little tolerance when it comes to returns on their investments. Analyst insights, falling market share, worry on Dalal or Wall Street, dropping share price… time to tighten the ‘waste’-belt.
  2. Crisis: Competitor coup or mass attrition, crisis can hit with devastating speed. Implementing a counter-strategy does not allow the luxury of time – it has to happen as of…yesterday. It’s time for Genghis to get into the saddle!       
  3. Brand risk: Specifically caused by internal failures. A swift investigation consisting of a confessional and a snoop team. Exemplary actions against the perpetrators to protect the Brand. Enter the executioner!
  4. Restructure or regret: Why wait for a recession! It’s good to do some periodic ‘spring cleaning’. Reviewing the org-structure, removing duplication, cutting the fat: uncompetitive perks, ‘bench’ resources and other sweeties. Restructuring is a task leaders enjoy less than the people it impacts. Only a hard heart can snatch the lollipop from the baby…


This ‘Corporate rakshasa’ has a singular goal – set the situation right! Apart from the much evolved organizations, people usually end up taking the second or third place in the pecking order – after Profit and Brand.

Corporate scientists would politely describe such leaders as those with a leadership style that is high on the Directive and Pace-setting, while low on the Collaborative — also known as the ‘my-way-or-the-highway style’. ‘Do it, like this, by this time. Update me every hour. That will be all. Thank you.’

However, not all leaders can turn on their ‘Devil Wears Prada’ chutzpah successfully! Therefore, when the circumstances demand, the top management has to carefully select a person at the top, who can deliver the goods; and who, in turn, will select a like-minded team that cascades down the organization.

So what do these toughies need to demonstrate in order to succeed, despite the pressure?

  1. Goal Orientation: The corporate environment has a ton of distractions. The biggest one is people’s feelings. During uncertain times, emotional googlies fly all over. Leaders need to demonstrate tremendous will power and strength to maintain focus on the goal — putting the needs of the organization above those of its people.
  2. Expertise: This is the big one! A brilliant track record of applied business knowledge, result orientation and a charisma that brings out only the best in everyone they lead. There is very little room for error at the top. And even less time. The brusque nature of the directions must inform people that they are coming from a position of strength and experience. Leaders need to focus less on thinking and more on doing.
  3. Integrity via policy: Ultra-high integrity of the leader is critical! And company policy, by design, helps leaders demonstrate their integrity – by sticking to it! People decisions, per policy, actually benefit the deserving employee, with interpretation making the difference! In times of strife, leaders who follow policy to the letter have the ability to make it work for people who need it.


This adds up to Gravitas. And many of these highly directive, culture-killers actually end up enjoying cult status within the organization!

Now, why would people venerate the office tyrant?

First, for the learning! Paucity of time demands that people do new, different, bigger things – tasks they would never have had the opportunity to experience. Generating the adrenalin rush that precedes success. Ask any high performer!

Second, change conditions quickly and separate the leaders from the losers. The latter defined more by their lack of integrity than their incompetence! People figure this out.

So, the next time we criticize a tough, cold hearted leader, let’s ponder a bit. Are our lollipops always good for us? How about some maturity when they’re taken away to keep the business healthy?

Shouldn’t we be gentle to the leftness of a leader’s brain and the coldness of the heart and think about the larger picture? After all, its nothing personal. Purely Business.

Some food for thought!

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Topics: Life @ Work, Watercooler, Culture

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