With Martin G. Moore

Episode #182

What is Strong Leadership? Taking people where they ought to be

Almost all of the content that we produce on the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast is designed to help you become a stronger leader. But what is ‘strong leadership’? How would you know if you were being strong enough, without crossing the line into tough, controlling, or autocratic leadership?

This episode delves into the detail of what defines strong leadership. What are the observable characteristics of the strong leader?

Your primary objective as a leader is to deliver value—to produce results, and maximize the use of the resources that your organization has entrusted to you. How do you do that in a compassionate, empathetic, and considerate manner, without succumbing to the temptation simply to please the people who are closest to you?

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Episode #182 What is Strong Leadership? Taking people where they ought to be

I talk about strong leadership all the time, and pretty much all of the content that we produce on the No Bullsh!t Leadership podcast is designed to help you become a strong leader. But what does it mean to be a strong leader? How would you know if you were being strong enough without crossing the line to just being a tough, controlling or autocratic leader? Today, I’m going to dive into a little detail about what defines strong leadership. What are the observable characteristics that strong leaders possess?

Remember, your primary objective as a leader is to deliver value – to produce results and to maximize the use of the resources that your organization has entrusted to you. So how do you do that in a compassionate, empathetic, and considerate manner, without succumbing to the temptation just to please the people who are closest to you? I’m going to:

  • Share a few examples of what strong leadership isn’t.

  • Discuss some of the more important characteristics of strong leadership.

  • What it actually means to be a strong leader.

  • I’ll finish by sharing a couple of my proudest moments where my own personal brand of leadership has come to the fore.

So, let’s get into it.

When you hear the words ‘strong leadership’ these days, you could be forgiven for interpreting it as something that it actually isn’t. There’s been such a seismic shift over the last few years to talking only about virtuous leadership attributes that you might believe that leadership is only about one thing: supporting every individual’s journey to become the best version of themselves. Well, that’s not why you are paid to lead, but it can be a serendipitous byproduct of strong leadership – if you do it right. Let’s be clear up front: as a leader, your job is to deliver value for your organization. And it’s not just financial value:

  • Creating a safer environment for your employees creates value.

  • Building market intelligence that allows you to better understand your customers and competitors creates value.

  • Investing profits back into the communities in which you operate creates value.

Your job as a leader is to work out what value means in your context, your industry, your markets, your organisation, at this point in time.


We’ve been conditioned to only look at the virtue-signaling aspects of leadership, we think it’s all about trying to be more humble, fallible, and transparent. As a result, we could be forgiven for misinterpreting what strong leadership means. Let’s start with what it isn’t:

  • It isn’t improving financial results regardless of the human and social cost required to do so.

  • It isn’t aggressive, older males dominating their weaker team members.

  • It isn’t the commander-control style of leadership: “Do what I say and don’t question me!”

  • It isn’t an inappropriate use of positional power.

  • It isn’t confrontational posturing.

  • It isn’t frequent displays of displeasure and anger.

  • It certainly isn’t a lack of caring, understanding, and empathy for the individual.


Let’s take a look at a few counter examples – leaders who would appear to be just bullies wielding power. Now they may think they’re being strong leaders, but in my view, they are anything but. They are some of the weakest of all. There are countless examples of supposedly strong leaders who’ve suffered high profile falls from grace.

Ian Smith was hired as Chief Executive of explosives manufacturer Orica in 2012. Now, the Board needed transformational change: company performance was terrible and declining. So, they figured they needed a CEO who was prepared to make some tough decisions. Instead, they hired a CEO who was just tough. He was known from previous roles as being prone to angry outbursts. There were signs in Orica, early on, that Smith was over-aggressive. The Chairman of the Board and Head of the Board’s remuneration committee had to try to pull him into line fairly early in his tenure, and they all agreed that Smith’s behaviour should be monitored. Still, there were many reports of Smith shouting at his people and calling the idiots – amongst other things. Eventually, the board ousted him as a result of a key resignation from one of his people only three years into his five year contract.

By all accounts, the Orica job was a really tough gig, but Smith – at least in this case – didn’t demonstrate strong leadership at all. He seems to be a man who lacks the resilience to keep his cool under pressure – if we can believe the reports in the public domain. His intellectual brilliance will always be overshadowed by his inability to treat people with the respect and empathy they need when the chips are down. That is not strong leadership.

The more recent example is the company, James Hardie. Now, James Hardie specialises in building supplies. It gained notoriety many years ago for the compensation-wrangling it did with people who had become terminally ill after breathing asbestos dust from James Hardies’ products. Now the company’s remade itself and is incredibly successful. It’s performing super well at the moment. Its shares historically traded on the New York Stock Exchange at between maybe $5 and $15, when you look at a 10 year long run average, and the share price was under $11 in March 2020. But then, it started climbing steadily and reached a high of $40. I guess COVID wasn’t bad for everyone, right?

But James Hardie has been in the news lately for all the wrong reasons: the untimely sacking of its CEO, Jack Truong. His ousting came on the back of the threat from a dozen or more Executives to resign. It seems like it was kind of an us or him ultimatum by the looks of things. Truong’s style was reportedly to bully, belittle, and intimidate his people. The statement from James Hardies’ Chairman was super interesting:

He’s a very tough, very demanding kind of executive. That’s fine, that is the culture of Hardie. But he started over the last few months, treating people with a lack of respect, using intimidation, fear and humiliation. And it was not a one off. We could not accept that.

That’s a big call for a board to remove a CEO when he’s achieving results. One can only wonder what it would’ve done if it weren’t faced with a mass-exodus of Senior Executives. If you were to look at the company’s financial and market scoreboard, you’d say that Jack Truong had a very successful stint at James Hardie, and I’m sure he’ll be re-employed really soon.

But, as an aside – before you marvel too much at the way the company’s market cap more than tripled in the two years from March 2020 to now, under Truong’s leadership – look at how the building market changed overall due to COVID. Remember, a rising tide lifts all ships. I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a lot of luck and timing in this CEO caper – anyone who tells you otherwise is full of shit. My tenure at CS energy was timed perfectly. The company was at the bottom of the market when I went in, and at the top of the market when I went out. Did we do some awesome stuff to lift value and improve the outcomes for the business? Sure – but there’s no mistaking the tailwind the market provided for us to accelerate and magnify our efforts.

We have a better idea now of some of the behaviors that we mistakenly attribute to strong leadership: bullying, intimidation, and aggression are most certainly not characteristics of strong leadership. Strength doesn’t come from aggression, it comes from calmness and balance – ask anyone who practises martial arts at a high level. Being strong is very different to being tough or overbearing. Jim Collins in his book, Good to Great coined the term ‘Level 5 leaders’. These leaders, he said, have a balance of humility and fierce resolve.


So what are some of the defining attributes of strong leadership? If I set out to describe it, where would I start? I’ve come up with eight defining elements of strong leadership. You can rate yourself against this checklist to see where you stand. Just give yourself a score from one to 10, for each of the attributes. If you get an average of eight or more out of 10, it’s an awesome sign that you are likely to be a really strong leader – either that, or you may have started to believe your own bullshit, only you know.

1. Strong leaders balance compassion with an unyielding commitment to results, standards, and performance, both at the individual and team level 

They care deeply about the organization and the people it serves: their employees, customers, suppliers, and investors. They know that this means not only caring for people on an individual basis, which is normally construed to me in their own team, but also recognising their obligation to achieve results as stewards of other people’s money.

This balance often seems to fall in favor of the short term needs of the individual, but that’s not necessarily the way to serve the long term interest of the organization – and certainly not those of the individuals who you feel compelled to placate. A strong leader, doesn’t overcompensate for individual needs. She constantly seeks the right balance.

2. Strong leaders control the huddle 

Since I’ve been watching the NFL playoffs over here in recent weeks, this expression is a great way of describing the concept of having the respect required to move people from involvement to true commitment. You may have seen the way players come into a huddle before a key play and the quarterback talks them through what needs to happen. Do those players respect the quarterback enough to really listen? To act? To want to play their part so badly that they give that almost intangible, but incredibly vital, extra effort?

With a lot of very young quarterbacks leading their teams to victory this year, you see 22 or 23 year old rookies leading 10 year NFL veterans. Do they command the respect of those around them? It can’t be done by force and it can’t be done by title or position. It’s earned, and it’s powerful.

3. Strong leaders remain closely connected to their people

They’re close enough to know when to push and when to nurture. They know when to give critical feedback and when to let something slide, they know when to increase the pace and when to lift the performance bar. How do they know? Because their empathetic connection to each individual informs their assessment of where that person is at any given point in time.

4. Strong leaders have boundless empathy 

It takes enormous strength to have that much empathy. To sit with someone and genuinely connect with them in a meaningful way; to feel their fears and their anxieties, their pain, their confusion. Only strong leaders can resist succumbing to the temptation of dismissing people’s feelings as unimportant or, even worse, avoiding them all together. It’s so much easier just to tell people what to do, isn’t it? And it takes even more strength to not let that empathy morph into feelings of sympathy.

For more on this, I’d really encourage you to go back and listen to Episode 135: When Empathy Becomes Sympathy. It is a really important distinction. Strong leaders have a thick skin and a soft heart, but tough leaders have a thin skin and a hard heart.

5. Strong leaders take accountability 

When things go wrong or, when seemingly insurmountable challenges face the organization, strong leaders stand up, they face into it, and they say, “I’ve got this.” They don’t blame others for problems or failures. They don’t try to squirm out from under their accountability. They don’t delegate inappropriately, distancing themselves from problems while letting their team take the brunt of it. They step into the vacuum that weak leaders leave and they fill it with purpose, courage, and a steely resolve.

6. Strong leaders demonstrate courage when dealing with those above 

They don’t just nod, smile and agree with whatever their boss says. They fight vigorously and selflessly for the best outcome, and for the principles and values that the organization has said it wants to uphold. This isn’t always easy! Many bosses don’t want to hear anything that shows dissent with their own views – and they certainly don’t wish you to point out the areas in which their actions might not match their words. But strong leadership requires you to put that aside, and do whatever it takes to achieve what you believe to be the best possible outcome.

The same holds true, not just for those above, but any stakeholders you deal with where you don’t control the power balance in the relationship: peers, suppliers, investors, even the media.

7. Strong leaders stand up when it costs the most

When crises occur, when things go wrong, when mistakes are made, when the chips are down – that’s when strong leaders shine. When the personal risk of an adverse outcome is at its highest, the great leader is at their strongest. They have an incredible level of resilience, that grace under pressure that we should all aspire to. They give strength and confidence to those around them. They lead from the front – and I’m not talking about over-functioning for your people by doing their jobs for them. I’m talking about demonstrating the behaviors that in a perfect world, your people will be moved to emulate.

8. Strong leaders take people where they ought to be 

This comes from one of my favorite leadership quotes from former First Lady of the USA, Rosalyn Carter. She said:

A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be.”

That’s a pretty good laundry list of how you might be able to recognise a strong leader and how you might be able to emulate some of those characteristics yourself. Hopefully this makes it easier for you to see the difference between this and the tough leaders we looked at earlier in this episode. More often than not tough leaders are just nasty.

But the most dangerous leaders, in my view, are the weak ones: the ones who hide in the shadows, who play political games, who avoid conflict and who shun accountability. They’ll tell you one thing, then they’ll do another. They rationalize their failings to justify them, and make themselves feel righteous about how they’re doing things. I think you’ve all know what I mean – you’ve all seen this movie, right? They’re not necessarily bad people, they’re just too weak to deserve the privilege of leading others.


I want to give two quick examples of the things in my career that fill me with pride, because I was able to show strength of leadership and demonstrate the right example for my people when it mattered the most. In both of these cases, the theme is really about putting the good of the organization ahead of my own self-interest.

In 2003, when I was Chief Information Officer at a mining company in Australia, we were taken over by a larger global firm and they came in to make some changes in the organization. Part of that change was decimating my group by taking out about half of the people who were there. The process for this was pretty sketchy: they sent in some consultants, who, based on benchmarking other similar organizations, decided that we needed fewer staff. So, they took out the hierarchical structure chart, and just started crossing boxes off with a red Sharpie.

That’s not necessarily the best way to do things, but I had a fine balance to tread – my job was not to save jobs, my job was to get the best outcome for the organization who was acquiring my company. That meant explaining to them very carefully what the risk was of taking out any particular role. Who the best people were – who they should want to keep under any circumstances because they were top guns, and what they were going to lose if they wiped out whole functions. I had to do it in a way though, that always kept the value of the incoming company in mind. I didn’t try and save the jobs of my mates, I didn’t try and feather my own nest. I played with a straight bat that said, “I’m going to fight for what’s best for you guys, even though you might not know what it is.”

When it came to owning those decisions, and having the conversations with the individuals to tell them what their future was with the new organization, I wouldn’t leave that to a faceless HR person from the new organization who was going to fly over from the other side of the world and tell everyone what was going on. I insisted that I sat down with my team, regardless of which level they were at, and had that conversation with them directly, empathetically and personally – and for that I’m extremely proud.

The second example is after my first year at CS Energy. As I said earlier on, the company was at the very bottom of the market and it was a terrible year for the organization. We didn’t really achieve any of the goals we’d set out to achieve. However, by the letter of the law, I had actually earned a performance bonus. Now, it wasn’t a huge amount of money, but when I got into that Board meeting where we were handling all the remuneration and bonuses for the staff that year, I declined my bonus.

I basically said to the Board, “I really appreciate the fact that you want to pay me this bonus, but in good conscience, I can’t accept it. We did not create value for our shareholders. When we turn this company around and we are making money, you can pay me. Don’t worry about that. But right now I think it’s much more important that we send a signal and a message to our shareholders and to our people that we get paid for performance. This is not something that we get just for turning up.” For that I’m also pretty proud.

I hope that helps you get a better feel for what I mean, when I talk about strong leadership. It’s very different from being tough and overbearing – and now, it should be obvious to you how it differs from the laissez-faire soft approach of the virtue-signaling leader. I’d encourage you to take this guideline for strong leadership to heart. In the world of the No Bullsh!t Leader, this is your roadmap to success.


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