Why You Should Be Relentlessly Passionate

I’m sick of being called a bitch. 

Okay, maybe people aren’t using that word as much anymore. But we all know that when you’re a CEO and you’re labeled “aggressive,” it’s usually not intended to be a compliment.

Look, I’m an extremely extroverted person. It’s nothing for me to walk into a room filled with people I don’t know and strike up a conversation. I understand that some people find this intimidating. In the office at my corporate training firm Balancing Life’s Issues, I’m very straightforward about things like managing expectations with clients and making sure my team is doing its best and sometimes it can rub people the wrong way.

This isn’t just about being a woman, although women leaders encounter gender bias when they are perceived as being too aggressive. I talked it over with a male colleague who also frequently finds himself labeled in the same way.

“I don’t like it at all,” he said. “I think intensity can be misjudged as aggressive. For me, it’s about making sure I work on tone. I would say tone is at least 50% as important as what you’re actually saying.”

I agree with him completely. If people can’t hear what you’re saying, if they can only hear how you’re saying it, that’s a breakdown in communications. As a leader, your job is to articulate your company’s goals and how you’re going to achieve them. If your team can’t focus on what you’re saying, you’ve failed. (The Wall Street Journal recently published an interesting piece about how overly assertive statements don’t persuade people.)  

But all of this becomes a problem when people aren’t honest about their thoughts and feelings. If you hold back on saying what you really think out of fear of offending someone, or because you don’t want to come across as too aggressive, that’s also a failure.

This got me thinking: What’s wrong with aggression, anyway? San Francisco psychotherapist Molly Howard points out that aggression is a feeling, not a behavior. We have a choice about how we express it. We can be hostile to others, which rarely gets us what we want or we can use aggression positively as my colleague said, we can have a rich intensity propelling us forward. Some like to say it’s better to be known as “assertive”, but to me even that word is tired and overused these days. I’m looking for something new to say, not “He’s so aggressive” or “She’s so assertive”, but something that actually encaptures what a strong, forceful, “take no shit” person is. 

Molly Howard continues, “I tell my clients something that might sound radical at first: aggression can be a good thing,” she writes. “Not aggressing, being hostile, or malicious, but allowing ourselves to become aware of aggression so we can register it consciously and attend to the needs it suggests.”

Howard writes persuasively about achieving a “balanced relationship with aggression” so that we can speak up when we need something, take action when it’s appropriate, and clearly communicate to others. The phrase that she often uses is “healthy aggression.”

What Howard is saying is that healthy aggression is just one of the tools we have in our toolboxes. It’s not something that should be considered good or bad. Healthy aggression drives us forward, pushes us to make tough decisions, and helps us focus on the problem at hand.

In an article published in LinkedIn, therapist Irene Lyon says that healthy aggression is a behavior that shows up in early infancy. This recently came up in a discussion with a friend of mine. She mentioned her Mom always referred to her as undeniably relentless and that she first noticed it in her daughter when she was under a year old.

“At about 8 or 9 months, I remember there was a physicality to your assertiveness, and soon after verbally as well,” she told my friend. “You wouldn’t give up. You were very determined and accomplished what you wanted as quickly as possible. As you got older this became routine for achieving what you wanted in life.”

Lyon points out that caregivers often discourage healthy aggression in babies, which makes them less likely to express themselves in certain ways. This can lead to passive-aggressive behavior and other problems later in life.

If all this aggression is so helpful in our day-to-day lives, why do we most often view it as a negative? When it comes to interpersonal relationships, maybe it’s time to retire, or at least redefine, the word aggressive. I think often when people say aggressive, what they really are saying is passionately determined. Sometimes the word we’re searching for is vigorous, vigilant, or decisive.

Best-selling writer Angela Duckworth, who talks a lot about the topic in “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” calls it “fierce resolve.” She urges readers to “demonstrate determination, resiliency, and tenacity.”

I think the best phrase might actually be “relentlessly passionate.” To me, it combines all of the terms I’ve thrown out so far, along with others like confidence and competence. It’s all about acknowledging the challenges that we face today while doing all the things we are driven to do and hey at the end of the day, it really does help get the job done. 

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