How to deal with challenges to leadership

leadershipIt’s tough being in charge. Not only does the buck stop with you, there often seems to be people around you who try to undermine your decisions. They may even openly question your leadership. It goes with the territory. Human beings are naturally competitive, that’s how we evolve. But when someone makes it clear that they think they could do a better job of steering your particular ship, it’s time to nip that challenge in the bud. In this second part of our mini-series on problems in leading, we’ll look at how to deal with challenges to leadership quickly and effectively.

What is a challenge to leadership?

Some challenges to leadership are blatantly obvious โ€“ think about the way Theresa May’s own ministers have acted during the Brexit crisis. But others are more insidious in nature. Sometimes they can be so subtle you may wonder if you’re being challenged at all. Perhaps you’re just misreading the situation? Let’s identify 3 types of leadership challenge and identify approaches to deal with them:

1. Hostile/Aggressive

A hostile or aggressive challenger is quick to dispute your judgements and debate may become heated. They speak up, sometimes in front of others, if they don’t agree with your decisions. They may be rude and blatantly question your leadership tactics. They’ll argue with you and won’t take no for an answer if they think they’re right. Here’s how to nip this problem in the bud:


As a leader, displaying emotional control is one of the strongest things you can do. It’s all too easy to fight like with like. Shouting matches simply escalate tension and are unproductive for everyone involved. Keep your calm, even (or especially), in the face of someone who is clearly losing theirs. Professionalism demands that you appear to be in control, even when an interaction really unsteadies you.

Don’t discuss the issue in front of other members of staff. Request that the challenger joins you in your office or somewhere private to clear up the matter. Do this immediately. Don’t walk away and give yourself time to think. It’s imperative that you take control of the situation when it happens.


Once you’ve taken control of the challenger, it’s time to respond to their challenge. Do this as quickly as possible. Acknowledge their points and address each in a calm way, using facts to reinforce your decisions or judgements. You don’t have to justify your leadership or decisions. However, you may wish to assert your reasoning.

If the hostile/aggressor has acted inappropriately, especially in front of colleagues, remind them that you are in charge. You may wish to consider a disciplinary procedure. It’s vital that those who work under you know that challenges to your leadership or authority will not be tolerated.

Emotional Resilience

Don’t take the situation personally. If someone has a problem with your leadership style, they very likely think they can do a better job themselves. As mentioned above, human beings are naturally competitive โ€“ some more than others. When you’ve dealt with the situation, don’t dwell on it. Becoming wrapped up in the drama simply feeds the hostile aggressor.

Remind yourself why you are in charge and reflect on your achievements. There will always be challenges to leadership, it’s how you deal with them that marks you out as a great leader.

2. Sneaky Underminer

The sneaky underminer isn’t going to blatantly argue with you. They may be very positive to your face but question your decisions to others when your back is turned. These kind of insidious challenges to leadership are as damaging, if not more, than the hostile/aggressive type. If you suspect this kind of challenge is taking place, here’s how to deal with it:


Before you go accusing someone of undermining you, make sure you have your facts right. If you’re gaining information from someone else, make sure you confirm the details with more than one source. At the end of the day, if you suspect the problem but have no proof, move to the next part of the solution and ask them about it directly.


Invite the challenger to a private meeting with you. Make it clear that you think they are undermining your authority. Ask them directly why they don’t agree with your decisions. Be polite but firm. Make it clear that it’s unacceptable behaviour to continue the undermining. Explain that there will be disciplinary consequences of doing so.

3. Just saying as a friend…

This type of challenge to leadership is the most difficult to deal with. Outwardly, this challenger will act as though you are ‘friends’. They may give other colleagues the impression that you have a personal relationship outside of the workplace. They may try to ingratiate themselves to you and offer support ‘as a friend’ whilst secretly undermining your authority to others. This challenger is the type to walk into your office without knocking and check Facebook on their mobile phone whilst you’re in the office. This is what to do:


Firstly, tough as it sounds, friendship with those you’re in charge of is rarely a great idea in the workplace. Even if you know someone personally, make it clear that at work you are in charge and your friendship doesn’t have a part to play. As they say, it can be lonely at the top. However, sometimes being alone is necessary in order for you to make impartial decisions and deal with issues, such as staff discipline, effectively.


Think very carefully before you become involved in social activities with those you’re in charge of. It’s usually better to politely refuse an invite for drinks after work. For a start, your staff may not feel able to let their hair down with you around. Secondly, you should keep some distance between yourself and your workforce. This sounds harsh, but it’s essential. Be friendly but not friends!

Demand Respect

If you have a problem with this kind of challenger, it’s time to demand some respect. Don’t ask โ€“ tell! For example, saying โ€œPlease have this finished by close of play tomorrowโ€ is fine. It’s a courteous yet direct instruction. Saying, โ€œIf it’s possible, would you please be able to get this done tomorrow if you’ve not got too much onโ€, just makes you sound like a doormat!

Don’t tolerate people acting up in your presence and don’t get involved in office practical jokes. Both these behaviours weaken your position and leave you open to challenges.

At the end of the day, sometimes you have to get firm with staff. Challenges to leadership need to be addressed as quickly as possible. You’re in charge and it’s important that people know and respect that. Using phrases like, โ€œLet me be clear…โ€, โ€œI don’t tolerate this…โ€ โ€œYou need to have this done…โ€ is fine. Good leaders strive to be both firm and fair.

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