How to Be Politically Incorrect

By Heather Baldwin

No trend has elevated mediocrity in the business world as high as that of political correctness. Sure, PC started with the best of intentions – to eliminate practices or language that would offend sensibilities pertaining to sex, race or religion. From these noble beginnings, however, it has morphed into a 500-pound gorilla that decrees saying or doing anything offensive to anyone, for any reason, is taboo. This behemoth has immobilized countless managers and bred ineffective leaders whose chief aim is not to offend, who pursue diversity instead of results and who take from the strong to help the weak.

That’s the stage set by Dave Anderson in his no-holds-barred new book, If You Don’t Make Waves You’ll Drown: 10 Hard-Charging Strategies for Leading in Politically Correct Times (John Wiley, 2005). Anderson asserts that to be effective, leaders today must be politically incorrect. Here, he says, are the four politically incorrect traits managers must cultivate within themselves if they are to be successful leaders.

1. Politically incorrect leaders discriminate. Yes, you read that right. You must discriminate against complacency and mediocrity in favor of talent, work ethic and results. “Treating everyone fairly doesn’t mean you treat them all alike,” Anderson explains. “Treating people fairly means you treat them in a manner they have earned and deserve based on past performance. Not everyone has earned, nor do they all deserve, the same discretion, opportunities, resources, amount of your time, work schedules or compensation.” Anderson cites the example of Jack Welch, the celebrated former chairman of GE. Welch not only invested exhaustively in developing GE’s high potentials, he also fired the bottom 10% of performers annually. He knew their mediocrity would infect GE’s culture, lower morale and break momentum. “When you worked for Welch you knew where you stood and were treated accordingly,” says Anderson. “If you stunk you knew it and if you were great you knew that as well. It doesn’t get any fairer than that.”

2. Politically incorrect leaders blow up the box. In other words, get out there and lead – takes risks, innovate, dare to do what everyone else isn’t doing. You’ll make mistakes, but remember that going 7 for 10 is better for your business than going 3 for 3. The latter is too safe; it means you aren’t taking chances and so won’t have a breakthrough. “In a world enamored with best practices, resist conventional thinking and consider it the realm of wimpy and obsequious followers,” says Anderson. Instead, get out of the line of sheep. Don’t just think outside the box – blow it up.

3. Politically incorrect leaders hold others accountable for results. This doesn’t mean you yell and threaten; it means you explain your expectations and the consequences of not meeting those expectations clearly, firmly and respectfully. There are two aspects to this rule. The first is that accountability starts with you. Admit your mistakes, hold yourself to a higher standard and stop blaming others when things go south. The second aspect to this rule is clarity. Many leaders do a poor job with accountability because they don’t set clear performance and behavioral expectations in the first place. Have you clearly communicated what you expect from your people? Only when you do so can you hold them accountable for meeting those expectations.

4. Politically incorrect leaders keep people out of the gray area. This means you give people the feedback they need so they know how they’re doing and what they must do to improve. Anderson says the four key elements of feedback necessary to develop your people include giving feedback quickly after performance, delivering feedback consistently, being brutally honest and being specific. Finally, remember that the most effective feedback is face to face. An email, memo or voicemail won’t effectively develop your people.