Business is Not Boxing: Why Aggressive Leadership is Not a Recipe for Success

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Written by: Tobias Günther

Recently, I had dinner with a young entrepreneur. He was going through a rough patch with his co-founder. To help him find the right way forward and solve the conflict, he had consulted a business coach.

That coach’s advice surprised, confused, and outright worried me:

“Well, that’s the way it is in business. Sometimes, you just have to step into the boxing ring.”

I had several physical reactions when I heard this: heart rate elevated, jaw dropped, eyes nearly popped out of my skull… I can’t begin to say how much I disagree with this perspective!

First of all, I think that fighting with your co-founder shouldn’t be “the way it is.” The role of co-founders is to support each other and have each other’s backs. Not to be opponents.

Second, “boxing ring”? Seriously?!? Looking at the realm of business as a place for fist fights? This explains a lot about what’s going wrong in this world. And why so many “business people” play zero-sum games and believe that ruthless competition is the only way to win.

I know that this kind of “martial arts” attitude is not uncommon. There’s a lot of pushing, shoving, and fighting. Spend some time in meeting rooms all over the world and you’ll hear and see this…

  • …in our language: “crush the competition”, “win at all costs”, “eat the competition alive”, “fight for market share”, “kill or be killed”…
  • …in our actions and how people treat each other: there’s so much blame, pressure, and shouting and such a hunger for power and control

On one level, I find this utterly surprising. Because those same people who treat their employees like minions would never act like this around friends and family. They wouldn’t try to pressure, control, or patronize their friends. If they did, they’d find themselves without friends pretty quickly…

But somehow, “because this is business,” many people think that different rules apply. Psychology has terms for people who act in different ways in different contexts, almost like they had different personalities.

But why would someone choose to behave this way — and treat people much more harshly and transactionally than they would in their private lives?

Because it’s the easier route.

Barking an order is so much easier than navigating a (potentially complicated) conversation with someone.

But there’s a huge caveat: countless scientific studies have proven that this “easier route” is not the more effective route! Quite the opposite, actually:

If managers are really interested in maximizing effectiveness, productivity, innovation, and (ultimately) success and profits, treating employees with trust and respect is their best shot!

But there’s another reason why so many of us choose the “easier route” so often: because we (I’m pointing at myself, too) don’t have the necessary skills to achieve our goals in a better, more cooperative way.

Not in school, not in college, and certainly not on the job: we’ve never been taught how to work and speak with people; or how to handle disagreement and conflict. It’s no wonder that “order and obedience” continues to be such a popular leadership model.

Knowing that respect, trust, and humility are more effective and more successful leadership models should motivate us to rethink. Tons of money is invested in sales training — so why not also invest in things like better communication, team building, and a stronger company culture in general?

If you need some more motivation, there’s also an evolutionary reason why this makes sense. There are multiple well-researched models (like “Spiral Dynamics” and “Integral Theory”) that analyze humankind’s history and illustrate our evolution in “stages.”

The lower, earlier levels were characterized by war, violence, and (to put it less drastically) competition. The higher, later stages of our development, by contrast, are dominated by cooperation and pro-social behaviors.

The bigger message is pretty simple: our job is to evolve so we need to resort less and less to force / pressure / violence in our interactions.

Now, you could certainly claim that I’m exaggerating a bit here: a boss yelling at their employees doesn’t mean the downfall of modern civilization. After all, “some employees just don’t get it unless you get a little louder,” right? Shouldn’t everybody just pull themselves together instead of making mountains out of molehills?!?

Well, frankly: no.

Treating employees as subordinate minions cannot be the right way to go.

First, because modern science leaves no doubt that trust, humility, and respect make a better recipe for sustainable productivity, profit, and success.

And second, because it violates our basic rules of human interaction: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

It’s really that simple.

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