Skip to main content

Assertiveness – a leader’s core competency

Assertiveness - a leader's core competency


Assertiveness is primarily channelled through communications. An assertive person is someone who is an effective communicator. Assertiveness is not the same as rudeness. The assertive person can be very respectful of the thoughts and opinions of others.

One clear differentiation is that an assertive person will clearly and at the same time, respectfully communicate their requirements, specific positions, and boundaries. The assertive person ensures that there is no misunderstanding of where they stand on the most important organisational issues.

The hallmark of a respected leader is that the capacity to show assertiveness, especially in explaining their position on topics or issues highly relevant to the organisation; and their pursuit of trying to influence others to better understand their point of view. This will nurture stronger and more productive relationships.

An important question

When reflecting on all of this the question comes up – why do people fail to say what they mean or fail to mean what they say?

Studies in behavioural styles reveal that less than 20% of people operate in the assertiveness space. That leaves over 80% of people who prefer to avoid what at times is perceived, rather than actual, conflict. This often means that things are not addressed, or if addressed, are done at a time when it is least convenient and or appropriate.

This situation would not come as a surprise to anyone who is used to working in groups, or in committees or on boards. Too often we are aware that opportunities for the leader to be assertive, can pass. It seems that many people have not learnt the art of saying what they mean and meaning what they say.

Maybe it is time to ask leaders if they find it hard to tell others the truth. If it is reasonable to expect, in fact demand, that the organisation’s leader be an effective communicator, then if that leader is not good at communicating; maybe they need to be replaced?

For is it axiomatic that every leader in order to be exemplary needs to be capable of telling the truth whenever and wherever it is necessary?

What are the organisation’s values?

Organisations need to embrace and demonstrate that they value strong transparency and openness. Getting that part right is important, provided it is acknowledged as only one part of what is needed. The other part is for the organisation’s leaders to then “demand” that it be practised both by themselves strictly, and by everyone else throughout the organisation.

One without the other is like one hand clapping.

A question for every leader when having a conversation with another person, relates to whether they will accept the truth of the feedback and perceive its objectivity. It is the ability to hold these “hard conversations” which distinguishes the great from the good organisation.

Authentic “hard conversations”

Another way to describe these “hard conversations” is to assess if they are in fact authentic. In other words, is their purpose truly genuine?

This is better answered by understanding what your objective is, in having the conversation.

While the reason will vary, often it may include one or more of these aspects:

  • gaining a shared understanding of why a particular issue occurred
  • ensuring that the person better understands what did occur and why it may be an issue
  • elements to be learnt from the incident
  • changes in behaviours going forward
  • determining what improvements can be made to current practices and or processes
  • ensuring that the importance of the critical nature of a particular practice is better understood and better followed in the future

Hard conversations are best held as close to the time of the issue which triggers the need for such to occur. Leaving it till later, may appear to condone or accept what has occurred in the eyes of others; or its follow-up impact maybe diminished over time.

Being respectful and responsible

While it may be important to carefully choose the timing for the conversation, this may need to be given secondary consideration when weighing up the nature of the issue in its holistic perspective. This has the potential additional benefit that the moment may offer a time when the issue is freshest in everyone’s mind and those who are involved can more fully experience the moment.

One of the unpredictable elements will be how the recipient may respond to experiencing the hard conversation. This may depend on whether:

  • they are new to the organisation; or
  • these hard conversations are new to the organisation; or
  • they do not understand the importance of having hard conversations; or
  • they do not (and may never) agree with the expected level of transparency and openness as part of the organisation’s working environment.

How any person reacts, should not deter however the adoption and implementation of a leader holding the needed hard conversations.

Over the years it has become evident that trying to predict a person’s reaction to a hard conversation can be problematic at best. Remember to conduct it according to what you can control and ensure it is done respectfully and responsibly.

Where organisations have greater experience in doing this, then it becomes easier because it assumes the level of “that is the way things are done around here” status. People can accept that the leaders practice saying what you mean and meaning what you say. Before too long, organisationally it becomes second nature.

In addition, the people associated with the more open and transparent organisation will have a greater level of comfort attached to receiving feedback and instead of becoming defensive, are only too ready to act positively in response.

Seizing these opportunities and turning them into a positive is excellent for any organisation, especially one which embraces striving to achieve a higher-level performance.


Each leader in an organisation needs to model telling the truth; and being comfortable in hearing the truth. It is a great contributor to the broader organisational environmental wellness that employees and those associated with the organisation can sense in their dealings.

So, leaders can do the following to directly affect their people and thereby their organisation:

  • be truthful in all communications
  • possess a high level of Emotional Intelligence
  • welcome all feedback, whether it is good or bad or something in-between
  • act with honesty before, during and after each experience

All leaders ought to become known for their embracing of honesty in the workplace, showing all that it is valued and appreciated. This will naturally lead to a higher level of trust, which in turn creates an environment of innovation and continuous improvement.

While telling the truth and being always honest is a harder thing to do as a leader, its upsides are enormous and the organisation benefits across various higher performance metrics.

DISCLAIMER: This article is general ONLY in nature and is not advice

For more information contact Damien Smith on or +61 418 325 781.