Leaders who aren’t assertive just aren’t as effective as they could be.

Why You Should Be An Assertive Leader


Assertive Leadership is key to being an effective Leader. Leaders who aren’t assertive fall into two categories: those that are too passive and those that are too aggressive. Either of these non-assertive communication styles can be detrimental.

Why You Should Be an Assertive Leader:

You should be an Assertitve Leader because unassertive leaders adversely impact the following and Assertive Leaders increase it:

  1. Team motivation
  2. Collaboration
  3. Productivity
  4. Employee commitment to the organization’s goals, mission, and vision

Specifically, the negative effects of leading too passively include not:

  • Giving clear expectations
  • Holding their staff accountable for assigned tasks
  • Giving constructive feedback
  • Representing the needs of their employees and/or department

The negative effects of leading too aggressively include staff being afraid to:

  • Share their ideas
  • Take action (lack of empowerment)
  • Alert their leader(s) about mistakes or customer dissatisfaction

An aggressive approach also often results in peers going around the leader instead of collaborating with them due to fear of the leader:

  • Blocking team communication
  • Dominating
  • Stonewalling
  • Obstructing

Leading aggressively almost always results in sub-optimal problem solving and surprises that negatively impact the leader and their team.

The Definition Of An Assertive Leader

In contrast, Assertive leaders are active, direct, specific, and honest. They respect themselves, require respect from others, and respect everyone they work with at all levels. Those who use an Assertive Leadership style know that productive relationships entail give and take. And they temper meeting the needs of their organization (or department), with an understanding that other departments must meet their business needs for the goals of the overall organization to be met.

Assertive professionals seek win-win solutions. They work through conflict by negotiating and influencing, not through avoidance (a passive-aggressive approach) or through taking what they want without regard to others’ needs (an aggressive approach).

Effective leaders choose to act and communicate assertively most of the time because it is the most effective approach in most situations. But, choosing an Assertive, Aggressive, or passive approach should be situational.

Choosing A Winning Style To Fit The Situation: Aggressive, Passive, Or Assertive:

There are times when aggressive behavior can be appropriate, like when:

  • There is an emergent situation that puts staff, the organization or customers in danger or at risk
  • The company might lose a customer
  • A staff member is insubordinate

In addition, there are also times when a leader might create a better business outcome by leaning towards a passive style. For example, when a customer is very angry or when a peer is strongly emotional about a certain solution and they’re unable to entertain another viewpoint.

Being a truly assertive leader means having the flexibility, self-awareness, and self-discipline, to choose the right approach on the Assertiveness Continuum in each situation to create the best business outcome.

Why Change From Being a Passive Leader?

In our experience, leaders (or professionals) who lean toward being passive, are often passed over for promotions. They often need to become more assertive to move up the leadership rungs. And in some cases, passive leaders are demoted due to poor performance and need to look for a new career path.

You can’t effectively drive your staff to get the right things done in the right time frame if you are passive.

Why Change From Being An Aggressive Leader?

For leaders who are extremely aggressive, retaining their leadership role, at all, often entails learning to be less aggressive and more assertive.

About 70% of firings occur due to leaders (or professionals) being too aggressive.

Sometimes companies hire a Leadership Coach because they have a leader that is great technically, but they are considering demoting or firing the leader because of the damage they’re doing to the people they work with. The price of their aggressive behavior is just too high for the organization.

Luckily, Coaching often helps aggressive leaders tone down their aggression and increase their assertiveness.  The aggressive leader needs to want to change and has to put effort into it, but they can change.  And, they need to open themselves up to the Coaching process. Sometimes this kind of change takes some very deep work and courage to face things challenging information about oneself.

Aggressive To Assertive – Example

Here’s an example of a leader who was able to shift from aggressive to assertive leadership.  An SVP we worked with was sent to us because she was being too aggressive with her staff and peers. Her peers avoided inviting her to meetings because she either attacked their ideas or pushed her own agenda so dominantly that no one else could get their ideas heard.  Unfortunately, the team could only create sub-optimal business solutions without this key SVP’s input.

The Executive Leadership Team also often relied on the CEO to resolve conflicts with the SVP, which took up too much of his time.  In addition, the SVP’s staff became uncommunicative because it was so unpleasant to interact with her, which meant that she was often blindsided by issues which her staff did not bring up to her.

Also, the SVP’s aggressive behavior adversely impacted the company and its customers. So, it was imperative that this either leader change or leave the company.

Most often, when a leader leans strongly towards an aggressive style (or a passive style), there is a deeper reason that drives this behavior. And these leaders aren’t self-regulating.  They don’t choose how they behave; they let emotion drive their behavior.

How Leadership Coaching Helped This Aggressive Leader

At first, in Coaching, the client resisted the deep work necessary to make lasting change. Over time, she came to trust and respect her Coach, and was able, with her Coach’s help, deeply examine her beliefs and attitudes.

Through deep reflection, she found that she was emulating her father, who she deeply respected. He had served in the military in wartime. She had learned from him that leaders need to direct and command to keep their team safe and attain their wartime objectives.

But what she didn’t realize was that this type of leadership was needed for emergency situations (like war) but wasn’t effective for her current role in leading everyday operations.

So, her Coach helped her shift this belief and also helped her practice assertive behaviors. As a result, the SVP began to use assertive leadership and her department and her company began operating more effectively.

Passive To Assertive – Example

Another example, on the opposite end of the scale, is a CEO we worked with that leaned toward a passive style. His passive style was detrimental to the company.  He avoided conflict whenever possible and this CEO’s passive behaviors included:

  • Avoiding firing employees that were not performing or who were bad for morale
  • Sidestepping conflict within the team and not leveraging it for better solutions
  • Not giving enough constructive feedback
  • Avoiding doing Performance Appraisals
  • Not fostering team collaboration through brainstorming and team decision-making
  • Staying in his office and avoiding interacting with employees

The CEO’s behaviors resulted in:

  • High turnover of high performing employees and leaders
  • Lack of performance improvement of his direct reports and therefore their direct reports
  • Low morale
  • Employee and leader lack of understanding of the organizational direction
  • Sub-optimal problem solving

Finally, this CEO came to us wanting to become a stronger leader and even identified becoming more assertive as a goal for Coaching; but again, his Executive Coach encountered resistance towards doing the deep work necessary to shift this behavior.

How Coaching Helped This Passive Leader

The Coach started the engagement by debriefing the CEO’s DiSC Assessment and Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI), which began to point out some of the passive attributes the CEO had.  As a result, the Coach was able to help the CEO see how his overly passive style could adversely impact his employees and Executive Leadership Team. And, it also allowed the Coach to start to ask questions about what drove this behavior.

Since the CEO was an introvert and was choosing behavior that was extremely introverted.  So, his Coach helped him stretch out of his introverted style to interact with the team more.  And helped him find an approach that would align with his introverted style.

His Executive Coach also helped the CEO slowly peel back the layers (as the CEO was ready to) to get to the root of what drove his passive approach. Trust built between them and over time his Executive Coach was able to go deeper with him.

Belief Systems Often Impact Leadership Style

Often the root of behavior is a belief system that is built starting in childhood, that continues to be built through life experiences and also is based on how one sees the world. It can come down to platitudes that are taught over and over throughout one’s life by parents, extended family, church, and school.

The CEO was originally a mid-westerner and came from a relatively small town where people were always polite and deferred to each other. His mother and father were conservative, religious, and instilled in him beliefs about how to behave with others, some of which were: “always put others’ needs first,” “don’t rock the boat,” “keep to yourself,” “what goes around, comes around,” “don’t upset the apple cart,” and “let’s not reinvent the wheel.” As a result, he didn’t believe that addressing conflict and confronting people was acceptable.

With the help of his Coach, the CEO could see that these beliefs (and others) weren’t effective in his current role. They had worked in other business roles and had worked well in his personal life but didn’t work in this situation. The CEO and his Coach worked together to create opposites of these beliefs and the CEO practiced the new way of thinking. (But don’t worry, you can become more assertive while remaining true to who you are.)

Shifting Negative Cognitions to Positive Cognitions

Always put others’ needs first My needs and the needs of the organization are important and being an assertive leader means standing up for what I need and what the organization needs
Don’t rock the boat Being assertive means intervening in bad or unwanted behavior
Keep to yourself My employees and Executive team members will benefit from conversations with and guidance from me
What goes around, comes around Conflict is healthy and assertive leaders approach it head on
Don’t upset the apple cart Change often makes organizations stronger
Let’s not reinvent the wheel Assertive leaders support collaboration for improvement

Through the development of new beliefs and practice of assertive behaviors, the CEO was able to slowly implement assertive leadership and over time was able to create better business results due to his new approach.


Fortunately, most leaders can become more assertive. Working with a Leadership Coach (even when things are going well), a leader can:

  • Identify beliefs, cultural perspectives, attitudes, prior experiences, thinking, and habits that drive them to exhibit passive or aggressive behavior, sometimes through the use of assessments.
  • Shift, mitigate, or break the factors that drive passive or aggressive behavior(s).
  • Come to understand what assertiveness is and what it looks like, including word choice, voice tone, gestures, and facial expressions so that the leader can choose assertive behavior when it is appropriate.
  • Practice assertive behaviors.
  • Strategize to apply an assertive approach in everyday situations and in challenging situations.
  • Teach you how to own your worth as a leader.
  • Examine types of situations and relationships to determine new ways of behaving.
  • Learn to create in-the-moment interventions to shift thinking and select assertive behaviors.

After the leader has done this work, and the leader operates with an assertive approach most of the time, they find that their team becomes more successful. They also become better at supporting the needs of their peers and other departments, seeking win-win solutions, and collaborating with others so that they have a greater positive impact on the overall business success of their company.

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With Our Consultations Coach: Chris Sier, PCC (BIO)
With Our Consultations Coach: Chris Sier, PCC