ATD Blog

Steel and Velvet Leadership

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Most leaders cling to their natural leadership style. They reason, “That’s who I am. I can’t change my nature.”

Big mistake. We cannot change our nature, but we can change our behavior.

For decades, managers have relied on a battery of tools, such as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and the Insights Discovery System, to understand their personality profiles. These are useful starting points, but only a beginning.

Triple Crown Leadership requires getting beyond a personality profile:

  • The shy foreman must speak up in front of large groups.
  • The quiet administrator must be a courageous “voice of one” in a staff meeting, even when others resent her for making waves.
  • The reflective thinker must make a quick decision when circumstances demand it.
  • The dominating vice president has to learn to shut up and listen.

It turns out that leadership has a hard edge (“steel”) and a soft edge (“velvet”).

In steel mode, leaders exercise authority and power—within ethical boundaries, of course—to get results. Steel requires confidence, discipline, and toughness. Steel leadership involves getting results, executing through the hierarchy, and committing to tough decisions and forceful actions.

  • Steel leaders expect team members to execute plans on schedule and within budget. They make difficult, sometimes controversial, decisions. They must be willing to go against the tide and risk popular support.
  • Steel leadership is not bullying, intimidating, or manipulative. It does not use fear to maintain power. It is not the iron fist within the velvet glove. It is not autocratic rule cloaked within a false, soft exterior.
  • Steel leadership should be “rigorous, not ruthless,” as Jim Collins has noted. What we call “Triple Crown Leaders”—those who commit to building excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations—deeply value their associates, even when they must invoke steel. What differentiates Triple Crown steel from intimidation and bullying is intent.

Triple Crown Leadership flexes to the steel edge in service of building an excellent, ethical, and enduring organization. It deploys steel sparingly while staying within ethical bounds. In steel mode, the leader is the “Chief Execution Officer.”


In velvet mode, leaders are on the soft edge of leadership, employing collaboration, relationships, and stewardship. They use persuasion, not position power. By using velvet, leaders empower colleagues to become fellow leaders and co-creators.

When flexing to the velvet edge, the leader shows humility, even vulnerability at times, not pretending to have all the answers. She shows confidence in the team, trusting that together they can solve any problem. She reinforces that Triple Crown Leadership is a group performance in which anyone and everyone can lead at times.

  • Velvet leadership involves patient listening and connecting with people. It celebrates diversity in people and thought.
  • Velvet leadership trusts, thereby, building trust. It facilitates creativity.
  • Velvet leadership entails asking questions, nurturing, praising, and often saying “thank you.” It encourages fun and relieves stress.
  • Velvet leaders let others lead, building their capabilities. They tolerate mistakes to let people learn, so long as those mistakes do not jeopardize the organization’s survival.

This leadership-sharing approach develops others. In velvet mode, the leader is the “Chief Character Officer.”
Flexing Between Steel and Velvet

In Triple Crown Leadership, the key is not just steel, or just velvet, or some murky middle ground between them. The key is to understand the context and people, judging each time whether to move toward the hard or toward the soft edge. There is continual movement back and forth. We call it leadership “flex.”


Triple Crown Leadership is not about a steel leader with a velvet colleague, or the reverse. Such a “good cop/bad cop” pairing can be schizophrenic for an organization, creating confusion and slowing it down.

How do leaders determine when to flex their leadership approach? There are two primary considerations for when to flex to steel or velvet: the nature of the situation and the types of people involved.

Anchoring in the Shared Values  

As leaders flex, how can they avoid being viewed as inconsistent and damaging their credibility? The key is always to operate in accordance with the organization’s shared purpose and values—and to do what is required to build an excellent, ethical, and enduring organization.

Such anchoring builds organizational character. To avoid confusion, leaders should take the time to explain, especially when they are invoking steel, why they are taking those actions and how the decision remains consistent with the purpose, values, and Triple Crown quest.

Practical Applications

  • Are you more hard- or soft-edged in your natural leadership style?
  • How can you practice flexing from your natural style, explaining what you are doing to build trust?
  • Who can assist you in flexing your leadership style?
About the Author

Bob has served as CEO of New York Stock Exchange companies during his thirty-year business career. As the former CEO, Bob guided Sensormatic (a $1 billion security company) and Recognition Equipment (a $250 million high-tech company) through successful turnarounds. Bob is co-author of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (McGraw-Hill), a 2013 International Book Awards winner. Bob has served as Group Vice President and Division President of two major divisions of Pitney Bowes and Vice President, General Manager of two divisions of Avery International. Bob has led businesses and teams that have won numerous local, state, and national awards, including a state-level Malcolm Baldrige Quality Prize and the Shingo Prize for Manufacturing Excellence (shortly after Bob left). Bob is co-author of Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (McGraw-Hill), a 2012 USA Best Book Awards finalist. His writing has been featured in or reviewed by Fast Company, American Management Association, Center for Creative Leadership, Leader to Leader, Leadership Excellence, CNBC Bullish on Books, Investor’s Business Daily, and more. Bob has taught leadership at the University of Denver and Colorado Mountain College and is Chairman Emeritus of the Vail Leadership Institute. Bob has served on the boards of and consults with numerous businesses and community organizations. He is a Baker Scholar graduate of the Harvard Business School, a magna cum laude graduate of Princeton University, and served as an officer in the U.S. Army.

About the Author

Gregg Vanourek teaches at the Stockholm School of Entrepreneurship and  is founder of Far Horizon, a training enterprise that connects the realms of leadership, entrepreneurship, and personal development. Vanourek is coauthor of three influential books: Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (published by McGraw-Hill and a 2012 USA Best Book Awards finalist), Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (Jossey-Bass), and Charter Schools in Action: Renewing Public Education (Princeton University Press). His writing has been featured in or reviewed by Fast Company, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report, New York Times, Leader to Leader, Publishers Weekly, Entrepreneur, American Management Association, Center for Creative Leadership, and more.

Be the first to comment
Sign In to Post a Comment
Sorry! Something went wrong on our end. Please try again later.