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The hard and soft edges of leadership

Bob Vanourek //April 9, 2014//

The hard and soft edges of leadership

Bob Vanourek //April 9, 2014//

“Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet, who is as hard as rock and soft as drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect.”

-Carl Sandburg, poet and author, writing about Abraham Lincoln

Say you’re the leader of an organization, or manager of a department, that is struggling, and you know you need to take your leadership to the next level. You’ve read lots of books, listened to TED talks, received 360-degree feedback from colleagues, and been to off-site trainings, but you can’t seem to kick it up a notch.

Based on our experience and interviews with leaders around the world, one of the key levers comes from flexing between the hard and soft edges of leadership, what we call “steel and velvet.”

This is difficult because we all have a built-in personality that predisposes us heavily toward one side or the other. As leaders, though, we need to develop the judgment to recognize what the situation requires and summon the courage to act appropriately—even if it is uncomfortable for us.


In steel mode, leaders decisively exercise authority and power to achieve excellent results. Steel requires confidence, discipline, and toughness. Steel leadership involves committing to tough decisions and forceful actions.

In steel mode, leaders expect team members to execute plans on schedule and within budget. In steel mode, leaders make difficult, sometimes controversial, decisions. They are willing to go against the tide and do things that are unpopular. They are willing to take people out of their comfort zones in service of a higher goal and to hold people accountable for their commitments.


By contrast, velvet is the soft edge of leadership, encompassing collaboration, relationships, and stewardship. It uses persuasion, not position power.

On the velvet side, leaders empower colleagues to become fellow leaders and co-creators.

In velvet mode, leaders show humility, even vulnerability at times, and don’t pretend to have all the answers. They show confidence in the team, trusting that together they can solve any problem.

Velvet leadership involves patient listening and connecting with people. It trusts, thereby building trust. It facilitates creativity. It seeks consensus, asking, “Even if you disagree, can you live with this?”

Velvet leaders let others lead, building their capabilities. They tolerate mistakes to let people learn, so long as those mistakes do not jeopardize the organization’s survival.

Steel and Velvet

Such leadership—flexing between the hard and soft edges—requires stepping out of your natural behavioral box:

  • The quiet administrator must be a courageous “voice of one” in a staff meeting, even when others resent her for making waves.
  • The shy foreman must speak up in front of large groups.
  • The reflective thinker must make a quick decision when circumstances demand it.
  • The dominating vice president has to shut up and listen.

The key is not just steel, or just velvet, or some murky middle ground between them. There is continual movement back and forth: “flex.”

Practical Applications

  1. Examine the context, including the nature of the situation and the people involved.
  2. Invoke steel when you need to safeguard what we call the triple crown quest—making sure the organization’s quest to be excellent, ethical, and enduring is not jeopardized. If anything threatens the organization’s results imperative, integrity imperative, or sustainability imperative, it’s time to put on the body armor.
  3. Invoke velvet to build capacity in the organization—the ability and motivation of people to achieve sustained excellent results with integrity.
  4. To avoid being viewed as inconsistent (and damaging your credibility), always operate in accordance with the organization’s shared purpose, values, and vision.
  5. To avoid confusion (especially when you are invoking steel), take the time to explain what you’re doing and why—and how the action or decision supports the organization’s purpose, values, and vision.
  6. The toughest issues of all, particularly on the steel side, concern people, but you do a disservice to everyone in the organization if you don’t address the bad apples head-on.
  7. Don’t use steel all the time; the best leaders operate on the soft edge of leadership much more often and flex to the hard side only when necessary.