Quick, scan your leadership library. Or better yet, do a word association with the word “leadership.” I can almost promise you won’t find the word “gentleness” in the top 1000 words associated with leadership in our society. Strength? Yes. Courage? Yes. Determination? Yes. Gentleness? Well, it just sounds wimpy. And leaders can’t be wimps.

Here’s the paradox. In my work with senior professional and non-profit leaders, I see that their success in getting things done has more to do with their ability to leverage strong relationships than with their ability to wield power. Managing partners can’t boss their smart, opinionated partners and staff. Those colleagues have plenty of other career opportunities if the managing partner leans too heavily on power and position. Better yet, try bossing a bunch of volunteers at a non-profit. You’ll have a really small team really fast.

Here’s where gentleness comes in. If you want to build strong relationships, there’s nothing like practicing a little gentleness with those key people you need. I once heard someone define gentleness as strength under control. It’s not avoiding hard issues. It’s not demanding less from people. It IS doing all of those things under control, with the other person’s (and the group’s) best interests in mind.

Want living, current models? Just look at Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, head coaches for the Super Bowl this year. There are two men who have reached the top of their profession by being strong under control.

Here’s my question for any takers: Where have you seen gentleness trump harsh use of power? How applicable is gentleness to the real leadership challenges you face?