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Leading With A Chip On Your Shoulder

By Brent Filson

Summary: A common characteristic of many leaders is to use anger in getting people to do things. The author calls it "leading with a chip on your shoulder", and he shows why such a leadership trait should be avoided.

A Marine company commander I knew of had a memorable way of introducing himself to his platoon commanders. He called them into his office, gave them each a laminated wallet card, then dismissed them without saying a word.

The wallet card read, "Seven Ways To Get Me Angry."

I don't remember what they were, probably standard leadership guidelines like, "You make excuses." "You don't come through on your commitments." "You look out for your career and not the troops." They were important for the commander; and I guess for his lieutenants, but they're not important here.

What's important has to do with the leadership style they communicated. After all, if after all these years, I don't remember the specific guidelines but the style they evoked, there must be something to remember in that style.

In truth, the list was much longer than seven. He had a hair-trigger temper triggered at the slightest provocation. He was a good leader. His troops accomplished missions. But I believed, then and now, he could've been be better.

I call the style, "leading with a chip on your shoulder", and I am sure you've experienced such leaders.

In early American history, people often proved their mettle by putting chips of wood on their shoulders and challenging others to knock them off. Today, a person who has "a chip on his shoulder" is angry at the world and daring people to provoke him.

It's been my experience that, generally speaking, chip-on-the-shoulder leaders don't realize their full potential to get results.

There are two reasons for this:

One, getting great results is a matter of having great relationships. Great leadership isn't simply about ordering people to do things, it's about having those people be ardently committed to doing them. Getting people to be so committed involves the cultivation of deep, human relationships between the leader and the people. Great leaders know how to cultivate those relationships. People who have trouble cultivating good relationships in their personal life, often have trouble cultivating productive relationships as a leader.

Clearly, some of the greatest leaders in history -- Winston Churchill comes to mind -- have had poor relationships with their colleagues and family. However, it's been my experience working with thousands of leaders in business, government, and non-profit organizations that great leaders in these organizations have, for the most part, developed and maintained healthy personal relationships. A chip-on-the-shoulder personality trait is often an impediment to such relationships.

Two, here is the main reason the style is less than satisfactory. The chip often becomes the issue, not the results. Marines often focused on their commander's explosive temper, or on nullifying it, and thus put less focus on the mission at hand.

Look, being a Marine can be a nasty business. Leaders are not in the business of being nice to the troops. Leaders are in the business of having the troops accomplish the mission. That applies to leader everywhere in all organizations whether they are in a nasty business or not: They must accomplish the mission, they must have the people get results.

But often personality quirks get in the way of results. The seven ways that got him angry were not stepping stones to accomplishing the mission stumbling blocks.

2005 © The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

About The Author
The author of 23 books, Brent Filson's recent books are, THE LEADERSHIP TALK: THE GREATEST LEADERSHIP TOOL and 101 WAYS TO GIVE GREAT LEADERSHIP TALKS. He is founder and president of The Filson Leadership Group, Inc. - and for more than 21 years has been helping leaders of top companies worldwide get audacious results. Sign up for his free leadership e-zine and get a free white paper: "49 Ways To Turn Action Into Results," at

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