When it comes to bosses, how tough is too tough?
At a time when the default mode of the workplace is one of cooperation and consensus, being a hard-edged leader is riskier than it used to be, according to executives and people who study leadership.
Last week's sudden ouster of Jill Abramson as executive editor of the New York Times —where she had a reputation as a direct, tough manager—has stoked conversations about how much a modern leader must soften his or her style to be effective.
It takes sharp elbows to climb the corporate ladder in the first place and, once in the job, leaders must make unpopular decisions, from killing underperforming initiatives to firing employees.
A couple of decades ago, ruthless bosses such as former Sunbeam Corp. Chairman Albert Dunlap, known as "Chainsaw Al," ran companies without sugar-coating their approach. Today such tactics must be used with caution, says Robert Sutton, a Stanford University professor and author of "The No A—hole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't."
"At a middle-manager level, [being aggressive] probably helps you propel your career, but you need to evolve your personality as you just get a little bit older," says Jim Lillie, chief executive of Jarden Corp., whose brands include Mr. Coffee, Crock-Pot and Coleman camping gear.
Bosses also must be aware that their roles are increasingly public, with social media and constant electronic communications exposing matters that once stayed behind closed doors, says Sir Martin Sorrell, CEO of London-based advertising and marketing company WPP PLC.
"In times gone by, you might send a message internally that didn't get outside," says Mr. Sorrell. "Now, everything you write, everything that you say, you should think about it being on the front page of The Wall Street Journal." Read more on WSJ.com