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Taking the Helm: Good leaders are not afraid to be disagreeable

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Taking the Helm: by Paul Ferdais

As people out in the world living our lives, we’re generally nice and pleasant. We want to be liked instead of disliked. Being liked usually means we avoid conflict and everyone is happy with us.

In leadership situations, however, we don’t have the luxury of being Mr. Nice Guy all the time. Leaders are required to make hard decisions and to make sure things get done, regardless of what people may think of us. In other words, we sometimes have to be disagreeable in our leadership capacity. This can sometimes be off-putting for followers, but contrary to what one might expect, this behavior can actually help us be seen as a more authentic leader.

Being considered a legitimate leader, or someone worth following, depends on how others perceive us. Do we look like a leader – which may, depending on the situation, entail being clean-cut and well-dressed? Do we sound like a leader – do we use clear, clean language or is our speech profanity-laden? Do we come across as a leader in what we do – in other words, are we competent, are we disagreeable at times? These kinds of perceptions are unconscious, as if there’s an invisible checklist in the mind that encourages or discourages people from following us. We may not want to believe it, but it’s real and involves the psychology of leadership.   

This is not to say a leader should be mean or demeaning. But being less nice, or moderately disagreeable, demonstrates to others that a leader isn’t concerned with being unpopular in light of what needs to be done.
Being disagreeable sometimes includes:

  • Displaying a bad temper – showing annoyance or anger.
  • Being unfriendly – occasionally, the boss’s door is closed.
  • Being unpleasant – anyone can be Mr. Poopy-pants every so often.
  • Simply disagreeing with others – for the purposes of this discussion, let’s include a more literal meaning of the word “disagreeable”, especially when it comes to standing up for yourself. Stand up for your interests and be assertive when negotiating to make sure you’re not treated like a doormat.  

Being disagreeable does not include being a bully, offensive or otherwise horrible to the people we work with. That’s different behavior altogether.

I don’t mean to suggest a leader should be disagreeable all the time. What I mean is that sometimes a display of disagreeableness is appropriate for the situation and may even be expected. As long as these displays aren’t a leader’s normal everyday behaviors, followers will understand. It can’t be sunshine and rainbows all the time.

Conversely, being nice all the time can lead to problems for a leader. A leader who’s afraid of what others might think may not make the best decision for the circumstances. Additionally, being nice all the time can lead to passive aggressive behavior, which is detrimental to a healthy team dynamic.  

Here’s a reality of being a leader: Someone who’s nice all the time can come across as weak or soft, potentially spineless and not worthy of following. This is harsh, yet real. When studies of this phenomenon are examined, the validity of this statement is clear. For more information, I suggest you read this.

You may be saying to yourself that I’m full of baloney, that disagreeableness is unnecessary in leaders. Yet it has been shown that disagreeable people earn more money and are perceived to be better leaders. Don’t believe me? Do a quick Google search with terms like “do disagreeable people earn more money?”

Being disagreeable means knowing your value, voicing your viewpoint and getting the expected outcome. In other words, be your own advocate. It also means being an advocate for your people with the higher-ups. A bosun who challenges the first mate or captain on behalf of the deckhands falls into this category, since the bosun isn’t simply rolling over for the mate or the captain.

In an era of increased collaboration and teamwork, someone is still responsible to set clear priorities, make decisions and from time to time fire people. Don’t be afraid to be disagreeable in order to move your organization forward.

Former first officer Paul Ferdais is founder and CEO of The Marine Leadership Group (marineleadershipgroup.com). Comment at editor@the-triton.com.

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