Are You a “Cool Parent” or “Trail of Dead Bodies” Leader?

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 25, 2020

By Tasha Eurich, PhD

A Tale of Two LeadersAll Rachel wants is for her team to like her, so she acts more like a friend than a boss. At first, her employees relished the positive feedback she lavished upon them. But Rachel’s fear of upsetting them means she can’t confront poor performance. And whenever she has to share tough news, she’s indirect and vague. Her evasiveness breeds chaos, confusion, and resentment.

Jake creates terror wherever he goes. Focusing on results above all, he berates his employees when they fail to meet his expectations. He demands long hours—even calling them on Friday afternoons to make sure they’re still in the office. This produced a temporary spike of improvement when he assumed his role, but his team lives in fear. They’re sick, burnt-out, and clamoring to find other opportunities.

I call these two styles the “cool parent” leader and the “trail of dead bodies” leader. Which are you? Obviously, neither of these extreme leadership styles makes for a productive, effective workplace.

Effective Leaders Consider People and Results
Rachel and Jake aren’t alone. A Center for Creative Leadership study reported that 50% of leaders are ineffective. Other studies show most companies don’t do a great job of preparing their leaders to lead. So they flounder, wondering, Why is leadership so easy for everyone else but so hard for me? 

But even though leadership feels hopelessly complex, successful leaders master the same two behaviors—behaviors we’ve known for nearly 70 years. In 1945, a group of researchers at the Ohio State University studied foreman at the International Harvester Company, and found that effective leaders did two things. First, they created structure and defined roles, ensuring goals were met. Second, they showed consideration by being kind, supportive and compassionate.

These behaviors—let’s rename them Results and People, respectively—feel like a trade-off. The tension between the two is why leaders struggle: I can make my team happy, they think, OR I can get them to perform.

Because of this tension, leaders typically prefer one over the other. Their preference is based on factors like personality, upbringing, and culture. For a few, their comfort position is in the middle, leveraging each pole to support the other. Others fall somewhere along the spectrum, and others still seem to exist at the extremes.

People <----------------------------------------------------------> Results

On one side of the spectrum is Rachel, the “cool parent” leader. She doesn’t create boundaries, set expectations or make difficult decisions. When tough feedback is required, she freezes like a deer in headlights. This approach doesn’t make her team like her. Instead, Rachel’s approach is frustrating, confusing and demoralizing—and hurts their performance.

Here are a few signs you’re a “cool parent” leader:

  • The thought of giving your employees bad news makes you queasy
  • When employees are struggling, you step in to solve the problem or fix their work
  • You can’t think of the last time you gave someone negative feedback
  • You’d rather have your team see you as their friend than their boss

On the other side is Jake, the “trail of dead bodies” leader. Jake drives results so aggressively that he neglects the human element. He requires grueling hours of his employees, is never satisfied, and withholds recognition, lest employees start to act entitled. This pattern of behaviors may lead to results—in the short run. But it’s completely unsustainable. Employees suffer physically and psychologically and waste energy being afraid instead of being productive.

Here are a few signs you’re a “trail of dead bodies” leader:

  • You’re annoyed when team members request time off
  • You’ve used the phrase “It’s not personal—it’s just business”
  • You create rules/policies to guide how work is completed
  • You often feel that your employees are incompetent

Bankable Leaders Focus on People and Results
Effective leaders learn to focus on people and drive results. However, like Jake and Rachel, most leaders are out of balance. This is the essence of “bankable leadership.” Bankable leaders create prosperity, which is the combination of achievement, health, happiness, and wealth—for themselves, their team, and their organization.

If this seems impossible, there’s hope: Recent research by Richard Arvey shows that 70% of leadership is learned. To change, leaders must recognize their inherent preference and learn to demonstrate both behaviors. This doesn’t mean abandoning your preferences; it means supplementing them.

Three Tips to Become More Bankable:
Tip #1: Know where you stand

Find out how others perceive you. You may feel confident about which pole you favor, but others may politely (or impolitely) disagree. So, however you can, learn the truth. Talk to a colleague. Ask your team. Take a 360 assessment (visit for a free version).

Tip #2: Work on one thing at a time
Don’t try to improve everything at once. Think about it—you’re already learning something that feels unnatural—do you really want to feel like that more than you have to? There’s an expression among lawyers: You can argue 10 points—they could be 10 great points—but the jury will forget them once deliberations begin. You have to pick one so they’ll remember it.

Tip #3: Practice daily and relentlessly
You’ve created a leadership development plan before, right? It probably gathered dust on your desk and disappointed you when you revisited it the followin year. You were probably engaging in “delusional development,” the futile hope that just by wanting to get better at something and doing a few small things, you’ll actually be better. Here’s the truth: The amount of daily practice you choose will be proportionate to your level of improvement. Commit to using your life as a practice field, every day. If you make even a 1% improvement every week, you’ll see a huge impact.

Good luck. Here’s to your professional prosperity!

Learn more: AMA has leadership seminars for everyone from aspiring to experienced leaders.

About the Author(s)

Tasha Eurich, PhD, is the author of Bankable Leadership: Happy People, Bottom-Line Results and the Power to Deliver Both. She serves on the faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership and has served as an adjunct faculty member in Colorado State University’s Psychology and Business Schools. She is also a popular guest speaker at the University of Denver and Colorado State University’s Executive MBA programs. In 2013, Eurich was honored as one of Denver Business Journal’s “40 under 40” rising stars in business. For more information, visit