A Former Corporate Chicken’s Guide to Being Tough

“Successful leadership is not about being tough or soft, sensitive or assertive, but about a set of attributes. First and foremost is character.” – Warren Bennis

The first rule of success – in any endeavor – is to get the important work done. The important work in business is the tough work: cold calling, generating leads, negotiating deals, and closing sales.

If you are not inclined to be pushy, those kinds of tasks are tough to do. Also tough is to push your plan forward in the face of criticism. Other tough-but-important tasks:

  • asking for money
  • asking for more money
  • criticizing others
  • pushing people to work harder than they want
  • telling a BS artist that his stuff won’t fly with you
  • correcting your boss
  • refusing to provide help when it’s not really needed
  • confronting a business bully
  • asking for more money again
  • and yet again

You need to be tough to get the important work done. So what do you do if you don’t feel tough?

That’s what Walter B. asked me: “Being young and having a liberal-arts background, I feel the avoidance of confrontation to be the primary hurdle of my career at the moment. I’m too polite to get things done as efficiently as I should.”

Let’s start by saying this: There is hope.

I, for example, am a recovering corporate chicken. When I began my career as a reporter fresh out of the Peace Corps, I was afraid of almost everything. The building I worked at (something called “The Investment Building”) intimidated me. As did my boss (LW – 5’8″, 220 pounds, bald as a cue ball)… and the managing editor (Ivy League Lisa)… and the executive editor (Michael, who “had my number”).

I was also terrified to do my work, which included talking about stuff I knew only superficially (African economics and politics), phoning subscribers (who were older, more experienced, and more knowledgeable than I), and interviewing ambassadors (well… you can imagine).

I’d go to embassy receptions, having been instructed by LW to talk to big shots and pass out business cards. After five minutes of hovering around tight circles of older men who didn’t seem to want to let me in, I’d end up standing in the corner eating shrimp and eyeing the banquet waitresses.

I was afraid even to ask LW for a raise, and went for almost two years without getting one (during which time I was promoted three times).

Ah, those were the days!

I’m not much afraid to speak my mind anymore. And I’m a better businessman because of it.

I’ll tell you how I conquered my fears in a minute. But right now, I want to make an important point – to Walter and anyone else who wonders whether he or she will ever have the guts to get to the top.

You have to be tough to succeed, but you don’t have to start out tough. And doing the tough work doesn’t mean acting tough – and it certainly doesn’t mean acting mean or ruthless.

I know several very successful businesspeople who are mild-mannered and don’t like confrontation. They can be tough, but they don’t act that way. In fact, their mildness gives them some advantages. They make fewer contacts but tend to focus more on those they have. They speak carefully and thus get themselves into fewer jams. They avoid squabbles and lawsuits, which results in fewer enemies. And – most important, perhaps – they spend less time fighting and more time building their businesses.

Consider this as well: There is a danger in getting good at confrontation. You may get so good at fighting that you fight too much. Instead of giving in when it really doesn’t matter, you may find yourself battling it out just to see if you can win another point. (I’m sure you are not like this and probably never will be – but chances are you know someone who is.)

But let’s get back to the question of what to do if you don’t feel tough? How do you gird your loins and take on the tigers? Easy answer: Do what I did when I was just starting out:

  • Recognize your shyness.
  • See it as a weakness.
  • Understand how it hamstrings you.
  • Allow yourself to feel ashamed.
  • Admit it to others.
  • Commit to reform.

Walter has made a good start by recognizing that he has a problem. He errs, however, when he attributes his problem to “politeness.” By calling shyness “politeness,” you transubstantiate something ordinary into something admirable. But there is nothing admirable about timidity in your work.

Politeness is a good quality to have in business. When you are trying to get people to do things for you, it’s almost a necessity. So you don’t need to quash your politeness to succeed. You need to ratchet up your temerity.

You need to dig down deep inside yourself and find the pluck to do your job. It may help if you break down each task into its component parts (“I pick up the phone,” “I dial a number,” “I ask to speak to Mr. Jones,” “I say to Mr. Jones…”) and then realize that each part in itself isn’t so scary.

It might help also to recognize that you’ve done tough things before and that somewhere inside you is a person who is just as good and smart and capable as the gutsy person you imagine you’re not.

[Ed. Note: Get Michael Masterson’s insights into becoming successful in your business and personal life, achieving financial independence, and accomplishing all your goals on his brand-new website. You’ll find updates on all of Michael’s books, news on upcoming ETR events, Michael’s blog, and room to send in your comments and questions.] [Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]