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Soft vs firm leadership – does it matter?

Swatting a fly from my vision, Mr Rolf Gerber’s words struck me with a sense of grounded empathy as he recounted a personal narrative – “I think this [unjustified behaviour] is most likely only an expression of a much bigger frustration”. Certainly, unjustified workplace behaviour could have been an amalgamation of deep-seated frustrations in personal life.

When confronted with unwarranted behaviour, our initial reaction is often an internal battle involving a fight, flight, or freeze response. Afterwards, we frequently find ourselves teetering between choosing to be gentle or firm in our response. This dilemma can quickly escalate as we find ourselves in positions of leadership because we know our influence (and perhaps even sheer power) could mean the end of another’s employment.

What, then, constitutes the art of maintaining this delicate equilibrium? By extension, why is it of paramount significance that we grasp the essence of when to exude gentleness or assert authority in the realm of leadership? Perhaps a summary and brief insight into Mr Gerber’s sharing may help answer these questions.

Here is my attempt to examine the key conceptual underpinnings of effectively balancing soft and firm leadership, distilled from Mr Gerber’s narratives:

1. Human needs are timeless.

In a world steeped in change, the soft skills required in managing people will always remain relevant. To begin understanding why this is so, a first principle framework of thinking applies. First, we recognise that human interactions are inherent in any societal or professional setting. This brings me to the importance of the second: Human needs are timeless.

Amidst the daily hustle, it is easy to overlook the fundamental human needs for recognition, understanding, and a sense of belonging. Remarkably, this sense of belonging is intricately intertwined with one's intimate relationships, especially those within the home. Thus, Mr Gerber emphasised that if an employee isn't content and happy at home, his/her productivity in the office is inevitably affected.

An understanding of these needs can give us insight as to how we should regard matters and navigate soft and firm leadership. Particularly, in situations where one’s human needs are unduly threatened, more empathy and soft leadership would entail.

2. Pause, Observe, and Reflect before you proceed with Action.

Once, Mr Gerber faced accusations regarding his management and leadership abilities from a senior employee. These allegations had no basis and had never been echoed within his agile team of about twenty people.

When confronted with such irrational behaviour, our initial reaction is often an internal struggle involving a fight, flight, or freeze response, taking decisive action soon after. However, instead of taking immediate action, Mr Gerber sat quietly as he listened to his staff. After the 3 hour long session, he thanked his staff and took the weekend to reflect. Upon reflection, Mr Gerber was convinced the ebullition of temper stemmed from problems the employee experienced elsewhere, most likely in his private life..

With much consideration, Mr Gerber allowed the staff the space to regain composure and treated him kindly as he usually would. It was only about two weeks after the incident that he invited the staff to a lunch meeting to address the matter. Eventually, it transpired that the staff had private problems and that his behaviour a couple of weeks back were merely an expression of his frustration. Today, Mr Rolf and the former employee remain good friends!

Profoundly, Mr Gerber’s experience teaches us that the ability to balance soft and firm leadership hinges on our ability to suspend judgement and introspect before taking action. In his words, “always try to look behind the person, don’t take everything at face value; try to find out behind [the façade], what might be the reason this person behaves like that.”

3. Rules – both social and corporate – should by and large be observed.

In other instances where people become increasingly ill-mannered or when legitimate corporate processes are under the threat of infringement, it is important to remain firm in your leadership stance.

For example, ‘Key Talent Programmes’ targeted at next-generation leaders may mandate global exposure and overseas stints before granting the assumption of important leadership roles. Not abiding by legitimate corporate processes will often not be tolerated, granted extenuating circumstances.

Tour d’horizon, Mr Gerber’s sharing provided a refreshing perspective and he posited a well-timed contrast of the enduring human connection that persists in our ever-changing world. The audience remained well engaged, and Mr Gerber skilfully guided the discussion which felt much more like a conversation given the interactive approach.

Finally, what began as a fine Saturday morning on the 30th of September, met the late morning sky as it unfolded to be a canvas of contrasts. The sun painted patches of brilliance while dark clouds silently gathered on the horizon, portending an impending storm. We hurried along; the rhythmic shuffle of my footsteps echoing my eager anticipation to reach home sooner. In doing so, I found solace in the promise of a tranquil afternoon, savouring Mr Gerber’s words worthy of thoughtful contemplation, along with a book he gifted: “Lessons for My Younger Self: Powerful and Candid Conversations that inspire a better Life”.


Mr Rolf Gerber is currently an Independent Director of LGT Bank (Singapore), and  of Tokio Marine Life Insurance Singapore where he also chairs the Board Risk Management Committee. His past experiences include being Chairman and CEO of LGT Bank (Singapore), CEO of UBS AG Singapore, President and CEO of SBCI Finance Asia (Hong Kong), Chairman of Singapore International Chamber of Commerce, Council Member of Singapore Business Federation, Chairman of Swiss Business Association Singapore (today SwissCham Singapore), President of Swiss Club Singapore, and Board Member on the Board of Commissioners of Currency in Singapore. His influential leadership is a source of inspiration for many and it is my honour to share Mr Gerber’s take on navigating soft and firm leadership. I extend my gratitude to the Singapore Mentorship Committee (SMC) for hosting these hiking sessions, and to Dr David Ong for offering me the opportunity to contribute to this edition of the #SMCHikingLibrary editorial series. I am Zhihui, a final-year student at Singapore Management University, studying Accounting and Sustainability Management.

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