5 Tips For Leading Strong-Willed People

Stubborn donkey

Have you ever tried to lead someone who didn’t want to be led?

The same children that were labeled “strong-willed” by their parents often grow up to be strong-willed adults. Perhaps you know one. Perhaps you are one.

(I know one personally — me!)

But, have you ever tried to lead one?

It’s not easy.

In fact, I’m convinced many strong-willed people end up leading just because they couldn’t be led — and yet they probably didn’t need to lead. But, no one ever learned to lead them.

And, I’m not sure I am an expert. But, I have some ideas — since I’m speaking to my own kind.

Here are 5 tips for leading strong-willed people:

Give clear expectations

Everyone responds best when they know what is expected of them. That is especially true of those with strong opinions of their own — shall I say — those of us more stubborn people. If you have a definite idea of how something needs to be done and you leave it as an undefined gray area — we will redefine things our way. Keep this in mind with strong-willed people: Rules should be few and make sense or they’ll likely be resisted or broken more often.

Give freedom within the boundaries

Once the guidelines and expectations are established, allow people to express themselves freely within them. That’s important for all of us, but especially for strong-willed people. Strong-willed people need to know they can make some decisions — that they have freedom to explore on their own.

Be consistent

Strong willed people need boundaries, but they will test them. They want to know the limits of their freedom. Keep in mind they are head-strong. We’ve even labeled them — strong-willed. They aren’t the rule followers on the team. Make sure the rules you have — and again there shouldn’t be too many — are consistent in application. If it’s worth making a rule — make sure it’s worth implementing.

Pick your battles.

This is huge. Strong-willed people can be the backbone of a team. They can loyal, dogmatic, and tenacious — all for the benefit of the vision. What leader doesn’t want that? But, those same qualities can be where the problems start also. Don’t cross a strong-willed person over issues of little importance to the overall vision of the organization. If you back them in a corner they will usually fight back.

Respect their opinions and individualities

Strong-willed people ultimately want to be heard (as all people do). They aren’t weird because they sometimes seem immovable. But, they do resist leadership most when their voice is silenced. Learn what matters to them and give credence to their opinions — you’ll find a loyal teammate.

Be honest: Are you strong-willed? How do you like to be led?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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32 thoughts on “5 Tips For Leading Strong-Willed People

  1. About leadership—what happens when there is none? It's a sad joke at my church. Nobody is in charge. On the rare occasion someone (like me) dares to put forth a challenge to assess our mission or lack of it, challenge the status quo of just paying bills and having no ministries to speak of, and expressing disgust when someone utters the excuses of "nobody cares any more" or "families are too busy for church" or"everybody's too old or too tired to do more" or making a radical suggestion that we take some repeat time to pray for guidance. You should have seen he looks when I made that suggestion. I'd love for you to blog on lack of leaders, or leaders who think they are leading by showing up at every meeting.

  2. I can be moderately strong-willed when I want to be, but I can also choose not to be. So I see the benefit in this advice. What usually bothers me about these kinds of lists of advice is how other people are supposed to change in order to deal with strong-willed people. What I never see is how strong-willed people are supposed to change in order to deal with non-strong-willed people. It's like strong-willed people are unable to change. Take the last item, for example. There's the admonition to respect strong-willed people with no caveat that they should actually earn that respect. Yet there's no admonition for strong-willed people to respect people who are not strong-willed. A strong-willed person may say they respect someone else, but only if they earn that respect by meeting some criteria that the strong-willed person holds in principle. I will lead this way, anyway, but it's a tacit acknowledgment that those I lead who are strong-willed are somehow incapable of seeing the value in their leader on their leader's terms.

    • That's a valid point. I certainly agree with you that it works both ways. You might fuel another post. Point taken.  Ha! And I can tell in your reply you might be “Moderately” strong-willed. :)

  3. Ohh…that one hit home for I am a strong will person yet God has taught me to be submissive through some pretty tough times. Growing up was tough and I am not sure i would have made it without a strong will to survive. God took my survivalist heart and gave me a willing heart to allow Him to teach me how to be humble which I fail at time and time again. Recently my husband used the word passionate about me which is a good word only if I am passionate about God truth and not Betty's. Without even trying people always deem me a leader which is a little frightening to me since I know I could lead down the wrong path. I say all that to say…being a strong willed Martha has been an adventure because I decided to be the best Martha God could make me. In Him I found acceptance for how He made me, life experience has molded me and God uses this strong will woman more then I deserve. I believe everyone is a leader, and everyone has the choice to lead with love and truth or lead with self and falsehood. I am married to the kindest man in the world and he is a strong leader in those things he believes strongly in, a little stubborn at times but usually the first on to say he is sorry. Strong willed people come in strong personalities and in mellow personalities. Thanks God only He can transform us…great post.

  4. Ah they needed you back in when France was having the debate with the Pope about which calendar to follow. The pope kind of quashed down on them and made their new year of April 1st, April Fools day. Curiously, the debate has never been resolved.

  5. Shotguns cover a big area to nail things down, rifles are to the point and dead on and this post is clearly right to the point and dead on!! All the personality assessments have a category for this person and your points really help in understanding and leading that person which I represent VERY well…

    This post nailed it dead center.

  6. Ron, this is so good and I believe it will strike a cord in many leaders. Your point, 'Be Consistent,' is probably one of the most important and difficult of this post. I have these strong-willed people in my church too. We all do. The consistency issue many times involves having a Matthew 18 discussion with them, and not just once. Being willing to do this, to review the boundaries and rules as often as necessary, actually decreases the level of disconnect with these individuals significantly. It's hard and most of us don't like doing it, but afterward it is such a relief. Thanks for the great post.

  7. I wasn’t exactly strong-willed when I was younger, but I definitely wasn’t even close to giving in (I was pretty easy going, but I was a little closer to the stubborn side). When I was younger, my favorite times during the school day were recess and free choice. If you have strong willed children, allow them an hour or so every day to do whatever they want just as long as they’re behaving appropriately and pick up the things they were playing with. With homework, you can ask them stuff like, “do you want to work on your History report first or your science project first?” If your kid doesn’t seem to want to try new foods, say something like, “well, at least try a couple of bites, and then if you don’t like it you don’t have to eat anymore of it.”

  8. What is frustrating to me, though, is that the strong-willed personality generally is accommodated by others because the "others" are afraid NOT to accommodate them. I feel like I bend my will and tendencies often for those types, but very seldom do they bend toward mine….I need to use a lot of words to explain things, or ask questions, or double check instructions, and I get shut down. And the worst part? I am often made to feel like I'm the "lesser person" because I am not cut and dry, black and white, whatever you want to call it. How do I work around this to stop having hard feelings toward someone I really care about? Actually, a couple of them!

    • Start by knowing who you are, what you stand for and believe in, and then measure what other people say and do by that, not by what they say or do. People can only make you feel how you let them make you feel.

  9. It seems to me you're justifying controlling others, or how it's a virtue to be controlled.

    Is there anything wrong in being strong-willed? other than undermining your will to control others?

    • Not at all. If you read the bulk of my writing I'm against controlling leadership. I am advocating leading strong willed people. Leaders lead. And some people have strong wills…people like me…but at times we still need someone to lead us. To assume otherwise is prideful.  So answer to your question. Nothing wrong with being strong willed. What we do with that will is what matters.  Thanks. 

  10. I have had the opportunity to lead among all sorts of people for a number of years including those strong-willed types that keep me on my toes. One key ingredient I have found is to not only allow people to be part of the solution, but to hold them accountable to it. In other words, when people understand that my expectation is for them to provide potential solutions in addition to stating the problems, they learn to equip themselves with well thought out ideas before approaching a situation hap-hazardly.

  11. I’m a stong-willed person, and it helps me when the leader is willing to consider my ideas. Being shut down before they even listen to my suggestions is one sure way of alienating me (I might bite…lol). I taught high school for 22 years and I found that learning to appreciate a strong-willed student for their strengths and trying to capitalize on those strengths (letting them do what they do best) was a great help in dealing with them. We want to make a contribution so give us something positive to do.

  12. As a self-professed strong willed person, I couldn’t agree with you more. I don’t always want to be the leader, and when I don’t, I desperately need clear expectations, I do want to know my boundaries (which I will certainly test but ultimately respect), and most importantly, I need to know you’re listening! I can follow you if you just take a second to listen to the guy who’s closest to the ground on this one. I try to lead in this same way – I’ve got strong opinions on how things should be done, but I want to give folks the freedom to find their way through it.

    Another thought, I teach on generational diversity (hot topic in the workplace right now), and the more Millenials you have in leadership, the more important listening to their opinions will be. We’re the generation who was given the right as children to make our own decisions and discuss issues with our parents when we disagreed. Expect this same sentiment from most Millenials, not just the strong willed ones.