Posted by: chrismaser | May 12, 2010


Have you ever encountered a person whose behavior was personally offensive, a person you wished would simply go away so you would not have the urge to chew the inside of your cheeks raw every time they spoke? A common failing of leadership is to split one’s energy among blaming, berating, and bemoaning someone else’s behavior, which often causes a leader to lose sight of the vision toward which they are supposed to be leading. All is not lost, however; there are things you can do to “save your sanity,” as it were.

1. Identify those specific behaviors that trigger your own emotions. Identifying your behavioral triggers is important because we each respond uniquely to those around us and in the world at large. Each time we react strongly to another person, either positively or negatively, it says more about us than it does about the other person. It is important, in this sense, to accept personal responsibility for your own thoughts and feelings because what drives you to distraction may bother no one else or may actually be enjoyable to others.

2. Talk the to individual privately, and use the “sandwich technique.” Once you have identified the specific behaviors that you find so annoying, share them with the person involved, but sandwich your comments between positive statements. Everyone has at least some positive attributes, although at times (depending on your state of mind) it may seem like you have to dig pretty deeply to find them.

Once you have ferreted out the person’s positive attributes, visit with them, but be assertive rather than passive, passive-aggressive (indirect passively expressed aggression), or aggressive. Use “I” statements and address the specific behavior(s) that annoys you, as opposed to generalized “you” statements. For example, say “I felt uncomfortable when you told that sexist joke,” rather than “You are sexist.”

3. Timing is critical. Choose a time when you are calm and can stick to the issue at hand, which is your response to the person’s specific behavior(s). Plan to meet in a relaxed neutral setting, perhaps for a cup of coffee. Make sure there is enough time for a friendly visit, and be prepared not only to express yourself directly and kindly but also to listen empathically.

4. Remember your role as leader. A leader must be willing to hear and bear the fears of their followers if a mutually supportive environment is to be forthcoming within the community. There are neither exceptions nor addendas to leadership that excuse a leader from dealing with someone they does not like.

A tremendous leadership challenge is to make inclusive democracy come alive when faced with someone who is self-centered, critical, and generally obnoxious in a way that strips others of their own self-confidence. Well-documented circumstances can be a powerful tool when coupled with well-communicated feedback. When such feedback is handled with quiet dignity, it has the potential to benefit not only the group as a whole but also the person to whom you, as leader, have been reacting with alarm, annoyance, or anger.

5. A leader does not quit when things get tough. Although it is not always necessary, a brief “time out” may help, provided someone is capable of taking over for a while. There are times when the most able leader is just too close to a situation to see it clearly. In this case, they must take a deep breath, stand back, refocus, and when focused once again assume leadership.

6. If nothing else works, find a facilitator. It is critical that the facilitator be transformative and free of personal investment in the outcome.1

The ideal outcome of having to deal with someone you do not like is that your nemesis becomes your teacher. Although you may not be alleviated of your annoyance in the way you might wish, you can always change yourself for the better in response to the problems posed by your opponent. An unmistakable sign of a true leader is the ability to change themself in such a way that their protagonist becomes their teacher and—perhaps—their friend, because, in the end, as Goethe said, “Kindness is the golden chain by which society is bound together.” When that kindness takes over, you can, for a moment, see yourself through the eyes of another person.

Series on Leadership Challenges:

Return to the First Set of Posts

• Avoiding Self-Deception

• Over-Investment In Followers

• The Value Of Humor

• Imagine Yourself As Different People

• Inspiring Performance

• Nurturing Creativity

• Making Do With What You Have

• Establishing Realistic Objectives

• The Need For Urgency

• Give Counsel, Not Advice

• The Questions We Ask

• Burnout

• Leadership Within Organizations


  1. The discussion in based on: Luann Lee Brown. Coping With a Disliked Member. The Toastmaster 63 (1997):6-7.

Text © by Chris Maser, 2010. All rights reserved.

Protected by Copyscape Web Copyright Protection

This article is excerpted from my 1998 book, Vision and Leadership in Sustainable Development. Lewis Publishers, Boca Raton, FL. 235 pp. It is updated in my 2012 book, Decision Making For A Sustainable Environment: A Systemic Approach. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL. If you want more information about this book, want to purchase it, or want to contact me—visit my website.

If you wish, you can also read an article about what is important to me and/or you can listen to me give a presentation.

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