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The Value of “Tough Love”

In the first job I held out of law school, my boss demanded that I think. He demanded a strategy or a plan. He demanded follow through. He demanded responsibility. He demanded my best.

He got it.

To be clear, he was not abusive nor was there any bullying. His kindness was there – in his praise, his openness to new ideas and curiosity about my thinking. He also has a great sense of humor. His tough love was simply about holding the highest expectations of everyone at the firm — for the sake of the clients we served.

I thrived on the high bar my boss set and I learned vertically. I did more work for this man because he represented the firm’s values completely and he believed so much in my abilities, that I started to believe in them myself.

Recently, when a Forbes article came out entitled “Why the Toughest Bosses Are Best” , I sent it to him. The article summarizes another author’s experience of a “tough love” music teacher and how his philosophy might translate to “tough love” leadership in the business world.

My former boss wrote back and responded that he did not aspire to being a “tough love” kind of guy. (He happens to have a huge heart.) But he likened it to being in the military. When people’s lives were at stake, it’s about extraordinary performance. Similarly at our firm, our clients’ organizations and livelihoods are at stake. It was about extraordinary performance in order to protect our clients when they could not do so themselves.

To some, this may seem like a total paradox. How can I write about collaborative cultures and communication and thrive on “tough love?”

I believe tough love is, at its essence, about high expectations and extraordinary performance. And it absolutely exists in the most collaborative of cultures. For example, one inspiring CEO remarked that his young company is doing so well because they have set a culture of excellence. Everything they do is simply… well, excellent. Employees who do not share this value do not find their tenure at the company to be very long. Those employees that share and work by these high expectations, hold each other extraordinarily accountable.

Tough love does not imply micromanaging. Tough love is about letting go. Tough love is about demanding the best we’ve got to give. Because our people – our clients, our employees or our kids – are depending on us.

And Allan, if you are reading this, thank you!

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