Years ago, I had a strong disagreement with a staff member. He was a long-time employee who sat several steps below me in the org chart. He was prone to strong opinions and passionate feelings, but he was also an extremely high performer in the organization and someone I was personally very fond of.
While he was usually correct in his opinions, he sometimes lacked a strategic view of the issues and did not always accept when he was wrong. This “spirited discussion” resulted from one of those “nonacceptances” which happened in a public place and was overheard by many other staff members. The conversation was confrontational, and it clearly made some of those around us a little uncomfortable.
Afterward, several staff members approached me and wondered if this moment of public insubordination meant I would fire him. When I told them that there would be no disciplinary action but that he and I would discuss it later to find common ground, they looked confused. Why would I, as the CEO, let a staff member argue with me and not immediately fire them? The answer is simple: It is easier to temper passion than to inspire it. If you want excellence, you need people with strong personalities!
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Organizations are just a grouping of people and things. Organizational success is the collective sum of individual successes. As a leader, it is our job to harness 100% of every team member’s possible talent. We must focus on building each team member individually into the best they can be, which requires that they feel safe to express their views, are comfortable speaking truth to power, and are supported to exceed the limits of their skills from time to time. This does not happen when we stifle people’s opinions or break their spirits by forcing compliance. Instead, it comes from individual responsibility, commitment to the shared mission and taking risks.
Simply put, in a business context, passion is an essential ingredient for greatness. It may be the essential ingredient. Yet, passion is almost impossible to inspire; it needs to rise organically from deep inside people who are committed to their mission. Passionate people often obsess over little details; they are constantly looking for a better way; they are frequently frustrated by others and are usually a pain in their leaders’ butts. They are also the star performers of the business and the centers of creation and excellence for the organization.
Unfortunately, many leaders see these traits as signs of a difficult personality and become frustrated. They find these people difficult to control, argumentative and sometimes even disrespectful or insubordinate. Sadly, in many business environments, these people are marginalized, disciplined or even fired. Passion is quashed in favor of obedience. Leadership encourages conformity through words and deeds with an eye on producing an obedient, homogeneous “team” where everyone plays nice and does what they are told. This is a bit like throwing away all the sharp knives in your kitchen to avoid hurting yourself or others. While you will be safer, you will also end up with a drawer full of spoons!
Exceptional people are creative, inventive and bright. They are different from the norm. They are extraordinary. Often, they are exceptional because of their passion for what they do and their willingness to challenge authority. As a result, they usually stick out in a sea of mediocrity and are sometimes unwilling to follow the herd. This obviously can make them a bit of a handful. It is important to realize, however, that this reluctance to do what everyone else does makes them great. They have no allegiance to tradition or authority for their own sake. They will make you and your team better!
Related: How To Keep Employees Feeling Passionate About Their Work
This does not mean it is okay to be rude, insubordinate or destructive to the organization’s morale. On the contrary, a good work environment and discipline matter greatly. It is great to argue your points and to challenge the thinking of others. But, that said, it is not okay to be mean, rude or disrespectful in the process.
This is a very fine line to walk and can be challenging to interpret. As a result, leaders must give their team the benefit of the doubt and adopt a “teach, don’t beat” mindset. We need to encourage our passionate people. But, at the same time, we need to help them express their ideas and make their challenges in a way that will provoke thought, not anger.
Exceptional organizations are the result of extraordinary people. It is essential as leaders, we spend time nurturing the passion people have for their work. We must encourage them to think outside the box, not to become discouraged by failure, and encourage them to take risks.
We need to pick them up and dust them off when they fall. Most of all, we need to understand that the fire that drives them will sometimes make them a challenge to lead, and they will occasionally cross the line and need to be corrected. But we need to make sure that we don’t break their spirit. Their strong personality will make them, and the organization, excellent!
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