Be Tough Yet Gentle

Anyone who has ever visited Homeplace, the northern Minnesota base for the Voyageur Outward Bound School (VOBS) may remember signs nailed on the trees every quarter mile from Minnesota and Canada Outward Bound founder Bob Pieh:

"Be tough, yet gentle. Humble, but bold. Swayed always, by beauty and truth."

Most wilderness Outward Bound schools hold a personal challenge event as part of the final physical challenge of the expedition. When I was an OB participant in Utah we had a ten mile run up a beautiful side canyon on the Green River. At VOBS the challenge is a type of triathlon--a six mile paddle, one mile portage, and then a five mile run on logging roads back to Homeplace. Some of my most vivid memories working there were setting off in my kayak and paddling to the first check point on Birch Lake at dawn--sitting on a small island and sipping my morning coffee as the first canoes came through the mist, and cheering on the determined paddlers as they pushed themselves and their partners one final time. 

As you make the turn onto VOBS road and the final mile and a half you are greeted by these signs, one by one. They not only encourage the runners to finish strong, they also remind us of the lessons of the journey that is nearly concluded. And for me they became part of the internalized values of Expeditionary Leadership. 

The first line, Be Tough Yet Gentle has been a mantra of leadership for me. For leaders, particularly male leaders, being tough is the easy part. I have encountered so many male leaders in my career that keep their distance emotionally from their teams. The problem with this approach is that it leaves you always with the need for an external locus of control. Employees will comply to avoid feeling the wrath of your toughness. But they won't take risks, or give you anything more than what you ask. They won't show initiative nor find joy in their work. They won't trust you. They will not give any discretionary effort to a tyrant. And as a leader and a human, you remain estranged from yourself. 

Gentleness in business is often seen as a weakness. And gentleness can be interpreted to mean avoiding conflict, or making nice above creating results. But gentleness allows you to see the whole person, and for those whom you lead to see you. Gentleness brings the human into the equation. When you are gentle with people, when you treat them with respect, they respond in kind. They work hard for you and with you--not because they have to, but because they want to. The work hard for themselves.

When you put them together, you make a leadership statement that says--"I care so deeply about you that I will not allow you to settle for anything less than your very best. I see you, I love you, and I believe in you--even when you aren't able to believe in yourself. I know you are capable of so much more than even you know, and I can't wait to celebrate your success when you discover yourself."

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