What can I do about an overly aggressive boss?

DEAR DOCTOR K:

I’m the executive assistant to a CEO, a man I’ve worked with for years. By most measures, he’s doing a very good job for the company, but people don’t like him. He’s aggressive, and that’s been good for the company, but he comes across as angry. I think he’ll listen to advice from me. How can he channel his aggression more constructively?

DEAR READER:

I’m no expert on leadership, but I’ve seen many leaders in the medical arena. And you’re right: An aggressive personality has both advantages and disadvantages in a leader. Aggression can drive a company to compete successfully in a competitive world. The leader can set goals that some on the team think are unrealistic — but then the skeptics are proven wrong. They discover that they are able to meet their leader’s goals. Think what happened to Apple under the leadership of Steve Jobs.

But aggressive personalities can also cause disruption with their anger and impatience. They can drive good people away. That’s particularly true when their personalities cause them to dismiss any advice that doesn’t fit their preconceptions. When it becomes clear to others that a leader is primarily concerned about his own position and not about the well-being of the company, some people stop following the leader. While many talented people stayed with Apple because of Steve Jobs, others left.

In my opinion, what matters most is which part of a person’s brain is driving his or her aggressiveness: the rational part or the emotional part. What distinguishes the human brain from the brains of other animals is the size of the rational part. In contrast, the part of our brain that experiences emotion — the primitive part — has been with animals since the reptiles.

That’s why managing aggression is one of the most critical issues in leadership success. The challenge is to use aggression for creative, helpful purposes without inflicting pain or harm. Hopefully, you can help your boss recognize his aggression and funnel it into constructive directions.

My Harvard Medical School colleague Dr. Ken Settel, with Joseph Cardillo, has written a short, instructive e-book about the characteristics of successful leaders. It’s called “CEO Psychology: Who Rises, Who Falls, and Why.” You can find it on Amazon.com.

Dr. Settel recommends the following exercises to help a person pay careful attention to his anger:

  • Ask: Am I angry? What exactly is stirring me up? Take a time-out.
  • Ask: Is what I am feeling appropriate to the situation at hand?
  • Ask: What is expected of me in this situation? What is my goal? What do I want from this situation? What do others want?

Finally, I’ll bet your boss has a sense of humor, but others may not have seen it. Laugh at his jokes and say, “I wish others could see how funny you are.” That’s a valuable antidote to the impact of an intense personality.