I heard the word ‘ruthless’ in two situations yesterday.  And whilst sitting in a huge traffic jam driving home last night – it was one of the ones where people switch off their engines, get out of the car and walk around waiting for it to clear – I was thinking about it. 

The first time it came up was yesterday morning when I was involved in one of those ‘did you watch that programme on TV last night’ conversations.  The programme in question was ‘The Apprentice’, the British version with Lord Sugar.  I can’t remember exactly how we got on to the subject but I think one of the candidates had described themselves as ruthless.  My colleague also described Lord Sugar as ruthless in the way in which he managed the relationships with the candidates, particularly in the boardroom.

It then came up again during the evening when I was listening to the Radio 4 programme ‘The Bottom Line’.  The topic being discussed was being ruthless and the panel expressed some interesting views.  Broadly, they agreed that being ruthless is often confused with being tough, and that whilst leaders are paid to make tough decisions it’s really important to understand the human implications of them and to do so in a compassionate way.  That definitely doesn’t mean not taking the difficult decisions but it does mean making the experience as good as it can be for those people impacted by the decision.  One of the contributors shared that the meaning of the word ‘Ruth’ is compassion, mercy or pity and therefore by implication being ruthless would mean behaving in a way that there was an absence of those things.  She also expressed the view that no-one would be proud to describe themselves as a ruthless mother (or father) so why would they be proud to describe themselves in that way at work?  And yet, there are hundreds of books which extol the virtues of being ruthless in business.  Strange…….

I remember that in the early part of my career if a leader was described as being ruthless it was generally used in a positive context, as a character trait that was admirable.  It seemed to be an accepted truth that in order to progress up the corporate ladder (and definitely to reach the top of it) leaders had to be ruthless.

I don’t believe that’s true any longer.  I believe there’s no place for ruthlessness in modern day organisations.  In a world where it’s accepted that the route to long term and sustained business success is by engaging employees and creating a high performance culture, I can’t see how been ruthless can be constructive.  Maybe it’s confused with being decisive and prepared to take difficult decisions?  Whilst in the past not being ruthless was sometimes seen as a sign of weakness, should being ruth now be seen as a sign of strength?

By the way, if you’d like to listen to the Radio 4 Programme I refer to above, it’s here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/console/b01dvwcz

LinkedIn: http://uk.linkedin.com/in/timhadfield
Twitter: @accordengage
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