Leadership and management; those are the backhands and forehands of any capable boss. Andy Grove said that, and Kim Scott picked up the simile to open her book Radical Candor : Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity. In it, Scott describes the special flavour of “managerial capitalism” that she internalised first at Google – where she worked under the auspices of Sheryl Sandberg – and later at Apple where she helped build up Apple University and especially the class Managing at Apple.

The crux of Scott’s message is that in order to be a great boss you have to offer guidance / feedback that is extremely direct. For that to work (=not be brutal) you must invest massively in the relationship, far beyond what’s typically thought of as “professional”.

If you manage to find this balance, you’ll avoid the three error modes that many bosses end up in, which are:

  1. Obnoxious Aggression (Steve Jobs might have got away with “your work is shit“, but the rest of us won’t)
  2. Manipulative Insincerity (Caring too much about being liked to give any kind of meaningful guidance)
  3. Ruinous Empathy (The most common failure pattern, the boss as the caring parent who can’t bear to discipline their kids)

Radical candor is – you guessed it – the fourth quadrant, right in the force field between Caring Personally (the flavour more popular at Google) and Challenging Directly (=the Apple way).

This book is all about how you as a boss keep staying centered, so that you can get out of bed each day to perform the same tricky balancing act that never gets any easier (“the essence of leadership is not getting overwhelmed by circumstances“).

It also exposes the authors’ many cringe-worthy failures in a way that really conveys how hard it is – even for a star like Scott – to be a great boss.

Radical Candor is a good primer for basic general management. It can verge on being simplistic, but on the whole Scott comes across as a person who really cares deeply about the subject matter. Here’s one of the quotes I pulled out of the book:

‘Building radically candid relationships requires you to walk a fine line between respecting other people’s boundaries, and encouraging them to bring their whole selves to work. There’s not one “right” place for these boundaries to be or one way to push them open a little more. You’ll need to renegotiate boundaries differently with each person you work with.’

One thing I’m not so sure about in this book. Scott frames her concept in terms of management, but I think most of her thoughts apply equally well outside of the narrow scope of bosses leading their foot soldiers. Take coaching, for one thing. The role of a coach is strictly egalitarian, closer to that of a therapist than to that of a boss. A coach has no formal authority and to the extent that he or she exerts leadership, it would only be from the sideline, so to speak.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t be frank, even radically so. In fact I think a clear eyed frankness (possible thanks to the sideline perspective) is probably the core value proposition that a coach have to offer.