Coach’s Corner Blog

Passion vs. Intensity: The Impact on Leadership Effectiveness

January 20, 2014 by Leave a Comment

Businessman Yelling

We may affirm absolutely that nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion. – Georg Wilhelm Frederich Hegel (1770 – 1831)

I have been working on trying to better understand the difference between leaders who are thought of as intense versus those who are passionate. From a leadership perspective, I believe this is an essential difference because there are lots of intense leaders who think they are being passionate, but they don’t get the same personal satisfaction, sustained engagement or buy-in from their staff in their exercise of leadership, or the same level of connection with those they serve.

A leader is one who uses their power to influence situations and the people and resources needed to accomplish things along the way. If you think of this like a chemical reaction, the leader is like a catalyst, which is defined as something that can accelerate the rate of a reaction without getting consumed by it. Like actual chemicals, catalytic leaders can create reactions that seem very intense and thus throw off a lot of heat. We are naturally very cautious about getting too close to such intensity because we don’t want to get “burned”.

Other leaders can approach similar situations and get things done without throwing off such heat. They create a “warmth” that attracts or pulls others to engage or follow towards the leader’s goal or objective. Both leaders get things done, but it is a very different experience for those being led.

On a recent Habitat for Humanity trip, I decided to play reporter and asked some folks I was working with – and respect for their success in the business world – who came to mind when I asked about passionate versus intense leaders. One common name on the intense side of the ledger was Bob Knight.

An Intense Leader – A Disappointing Model

I attended Indiana University from 1972 – 1977. I knew very little about the basketball traditions there since I am not a native Hoosier, but my matriculation to Bloomington was one year after the arrival of a young basketball coach from West Point named Robert Montgomery Knight – Bobby Knight.

During my third and fourth years, the Hurrying Hoosiers basketball squad lost one game and won 63. They were the last undefeated NCAA basketball team in 1975-76, going a perfect 32-0, and winning the National Championship. I fondly remember the season and I will never forget the wonderful celebration in Bloomington. Bob Knight led his teams to championships in 1981 and 1987 as well and his program was never challenged for any recruiting or other scandals under his leadership.

Bob Knight became the winningest coach in NCAA men’s basketball until Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski recently surpassed his mark. Coach Krzyzewski played under Coach Knight when they were both at West Point and he was a graduate assistant at Indiana for Knight as well.

The NBA and college coaching ranks are full of Bob Knight protégés. So how will Bob Knight be remembered? He was successful for a very long while associated with the game of basketball. Bob Knight is very passionate about the game of basketball – besides being a winning coach he was a player on the 1960 Ohio State National Championship team. However, I believe he has been a needlessly intense fellow and here are but few of his outbursts:

  • Striking a Puerto Rican policeman while in that country for a tournament;
  • Shoving a fan of an opponent in a trash can during a tournament in Philadelphia;
  • Throwing a chair across the basketball court during a game to show his disdain for a call against his team;
  • Being videotaped choking a member of his own squad during practice;
  • Being fired by Indiana University after 29 years for violating a “zero tolerance” policy put into effect due to his outbursts.

Enough said about Coach Knight. Most intense people never get that personally physical in our professional lives. But it does show how the successful passions and the brutish intensity can intertwine in one human being.

A Passionate Leader – A Compelling Model

I considered many historical and contemporary people who have great leadership credentials and followings. But I have decided to write about a leader I have known for a dozen years who has accomplished the following since being named President in 1998 and CEO in 2000:

  • Began an international expansion that now includes Europe and Asia;
  • Seen revenue growth more than double and closing in on $1 Billion per year;
  • Took the company private in 2004 making it employee owned with a book value per share that has almost doubled in that time;
  • Won accolades as one of Fortune Magazine’s Top 100 Companies to Work For over the last 11 years (#9 in 2014);
  • Recognized by peers as the Top Middle Market Investment Bank and Most Trusted Research Group multiple times;
  • Reinforced the value of putting clients first and demanding that teamwork is the way to succeed in the market with his “No Asshole Rule”*.

The leader I refer to here is Paul E. Purcell, Chairman, CEO and President of Robert w. Baird & Company, which is headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I have seen Paul grow as a leader and he has guided Baird with a firm, conservative hand that has taken a long term view of what’s in the best interests of the clients and employees.

Paul is an investment banker by training and has a nose for markets, trends and the art of the deal. He is passionate about his people, but he continually raises the bar on performance and holds people accountable for results. He empowers by developing and clarifying strategy with his senior leaders, zeros in on supporting their tactical choices and is always available for consultation and dialogue. His team respects him deeply and does not want to disappoint him, but this is not hero worship.

Paul is a hard-nosed businessman who spends a lot of time on the human capital aspect of the business as well. He’s intense about performance and passionate about people and the firm. He keeps Baird aligned to its purpose by carefully pruning the organization for profitable growth. He ensures the right attitude is consistently reflected as is evidenced by his “No Asshole Rule“. He is committed to soliciting input and connecting with employees and customers so that everyone can ensure they have the opportunity to be additive to the firm’s success.

Several years ago Paul asked me for any ideas I might have about the feedback he received in his annual 360 review. Baird was coming off an exceptional year, but the one thing I heard was that when Paul was brought in to assist with a key prospective client, he often jumped on his Baird soapbox and launched into his passionate sell about why Baird was a good choice for them to work with. The problem was he sometimes failed to take the time to listen to what the client had to say first. So Paul asked that his team prepare him better for asking more insightful questions and he would warn his audience when he was going to jump on that soapbox! This is a guy who is centered on his audience and wants to connect as effectively as he can. Paul Purcell is an excellent example of a passionate leader.

Let’s examine the differences between passion and intensity so we can:

  • Understand and diagnose where we might be in situations;
  • Recognize the value of each and when each makes the most sense;
  • Give some suggestions of how intense leaders can be more passionate and still make things happen;
  • Give some suggestions of how passionate leaders can be more intense and make things happen faster or more efficiently when needed.

Intense and passionate leaders have certain characteristics about how they communicate that can distinguish them. We differentiate the elements of communication as follows:

  • Verbal – The Words themselves;
  • Vocal – The tone – excited vs. alarmed, speed of speech, volume, etc;
  • Visual – Body language, non-verbal cues;

Overall Approach in an Interaction with the Leader

Passionate Leaders


  • Inviting, inclusive, creates a connection
  • Well chosen words – they prepare
  • Reflective and considerate but assertive as well
  • Action oriented – people want to listen


  • Range of volumes to place proper emphasis on topics / issues
  • Wants to SHARE
  • Enthusiasm is obvious – even under duress
  • Patient but persistent to ensure their message is heard
  • Patient but persistent to ensure they have understood others

Non Verbal:

  • Good eye contact – they look interested in what others have to say
  • Seems open and affirming to others
  • Respects others space, but moves toward others to demonstrate interest in their opinion
  • Smiles, nods, follows along with inputs

Overall Approach in an Interaction:

  • Audience centered
  • Channels the energy of a team / organization
  • Commands respect through consistent acts of respect for others
  • Focus on the problem, not the person, but people are held accountable privately
  • Appreciation of everyone’s efforts – no one is as smart as all of us!
  • Celebration of accomplishments
  • Reinforces good performance and encourages all to up their standards of excellence
  • Inspires others to participate; energizing.  Reflects a will to empower

Intense Leaders


  • Action oriented – can create true believers in a task
  • Caustic, blame oriented, puts people on edge
  • “You need to know this!” is the message, with “Dummy” (or worse) unspoken but fitting neatly at the end of the sentence.
  • Lack of preparation in messaging – too busy


  • Loud, threatening, intimidating , coercive
  • Slows down to make a point – but in a condescending manner
  • Has so much to say they can speak very quickly
  • Questions are not always warmly entertained
  • Interrupts / cut others off because they “know” what they are saying
  • Rarely asks for clarification – just makes a judgment and moves on
  • Wants to TELL

Non Verbal:

Their style creates confusion – they say they want input but appear not to because they can:

  • Pound the table
  • Point fingers
  • Glare / stare
  • Roll the eyes
  • Seem impatient
  • Cross their arms
  • Get red faced / exasperated

Overall Approach in an Interaction:

  • Leader Centered
  • Focus on the persons, less on the problem
  • Leader often displays disappointment / frustration with the team; never good enough
  • Compliance, not contribution is demanded; a chore or obligation
  • Folks do not want to have attention drawn their way and keep quiet

The Values of Passion and Intensity

A critical question for us here is which is more effective in generating sustainable results and engagement in an organization? The answer depends on the situation you are dealing with and the time, criticality, and risks associated with the potential outcomes. Although I would endorse a passionate style as the one creating the best long term benefits, in times of crisis or urgency, some intensity is warranted.

When you look at the Overall Approach in an Interaction listed above for Passionate and Intense Leaders, you will see a dramatic difference. For the Passionate Leader, participants will feel a greater level of ownership of the outcomes because of their involvement in the development and execution of the plan. It takes pretty good facilitation skills to get input along the way and incorporate the best insights and ideas into the final product.

This is hard to do when a team is under significant time pressure or where the risks are significant. So time pressures and risks might lead one away from a more inclusive, passionate decision making style from time to time. But elements of a passionate leadership style will create better buy-in, more creative ideas and build organizational trust, the secret ingredient for high performing teams. This is not a reflection on any lack of process skills, assertiveness or being tough minded as a leader because an effective passionate leader must possess all of those as well.

The more Intense style of leadership makes perfect sense when there are severe time constraints, significant costs due to client disruptions – to organizational reputation or in direct costs, or a team is responding to some sort of emergency or business disruption due to uncontrollable events. In such situations, a more expedient and directed effort by the leader makes excellent sense. I would also argue that the risks of shifting to a more intense model for a short time are limited if a pattern of a more participatory decision making style has been established. When the crisis is over, you shift back to more passion and less intensity. You have established enough trust with your followers that you can be seen as flexible without being inconsistent.

But some leaders seem to have only one style in their leadership bag of tricks. How does that happen? Is it Nature or Nurture? As to nurture, one’s work history combines with an organizational culture that can influence different styles of leadership. If results are all that matter, then if the reality is your staff might be less involved in decision making or have less latitude in implementation, then a leader learns to discount elements of the passionate leadership style.

In addition, if one has a perfectionistic personal style, which is the result of nature and nurture – the way you were brought up and what you have experienced in life, you will most likely exert high needs for control that will seem intense to others. It is less about the people and more about what is produced or accomplished – the work speaks for itself. But the intense leader can really burn out a team over time.

Man is truly great when he acts from the passions. – Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881)

And this is the central calamity of the Passion vs. Intensity dichotomy: I have seen intense leaders who are well intended and acting for the good of the organization and their team, be completely blindsided by how they are perceived. They feel as though they couldn’t be more personally passionate about a task or challenge and would expect to have their team have just that perception of them. But the cumulative impact of their verbal, vocal and non-verbal behavior has left others with a different perspective.

I often see this in 360° feedback where someone is very surprised at the feedback they get. In many cases an intense leader may be just as passionate about their team and the work they do and they are NOT in it to pad their resume or get results no matter the impact on others. They hope they have people warm to them like they see others, as perhaps more charismatic leaders do. But they may not experience that until they can shift their behavior a bit. Let’s discuss how each style can be instructive to the other.

“Passionate” Suggestions for the Intense

A leader is best when people barely know he exists. But of a good  leader, who talks little, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say, ‘We did this ourselves’. – Lao Tze  (565 B.C.)

When I think of the passion that good leaders can create, I think of the three A’s, elements of the passionate style that create results and connections between the leader and their team:

  • Alignment – Because passionate leaders can attract others to their cause or purpose, they create alignment – a common purpose and focus:
  • Attitude – Both passionate and intense leaders project a “CAN DO” attitude that is infectious and therefore mobilizes a team to perform. The key difference is that intense leaders can also create an “OR ELSE” aspect to their messages. This can often be subtle or not so subtle. Followers of passionate leaders do not want to disappoint because they have bought into the project or effort and in their allegiance to that leader. Followers of intense leaders may seek to conform or produce out of fear or self preservation. Both are effective from a results perspective, but they do not create the same sense of respect or commitment to those leaders.
  • Additive – Intense leaders can often be so focused about a task and create time pressures for performing, that executing the task is all you have time for. This robs the team of the chance to provide much input and the opportunity for shaping the outcome. The passionate leader builds time in for contribution and input and values what they hear, even if they do not chose to follow it all. People feel heard.

But even if the Intense leader embraces the three A’s in their leadership style, key changes are needed to be made to overcome the corrosive impact of the verbal, vocal and non-verbal elements of their communication. The condescension, the belittling, the intimidation and the body language that supports all that must change over time. I always suggest an intense leader who’s intent on moving to be more passionate, have a confederate who will provide feedback after meetings and discussions. We are not the best judges of the impact we have on others – we need the feedback!

Intensity Suggestions for the Passionate

Passions unguided are for the part mere madness. – Thomas Hobbes (1588 – 1679)

This is going to be a short section because effective, passionate leaders are very capable of producing excellent results. They know when to be assertive about tasks and to hold people accountable. Senior leaders do not let their passions become unguided when they have a clear goal in mind. Otherwise, they are ineffective and passionate leaders and that “madness” erodes competitive advantage for an organization, allows disparate agendas to develop and leads to an every person for themselves situation. Well established organizations can forestall decline for a period of time, but not forever. In any emergency, intensity of focus is needed, but sustained, disciplined passion for our goals should be what drives us.

The image of the passionate leader who wears their emotions on their sleeves and serves as only a cheerleader for success, rather than an effective business driver, is a misread of the style. They manage their passions and use them to everyone’s advantage.

It is the intense leader who lets their emotions of anger, frustration and impatience get the better of them and keep others at bay. The ability to sustain passion demands that the systems and processes are in place to make the results they are aiming for a reality. The intense leader may ask for their team to make process improvements and suggestions, but the team soon grows weary of trying because they usually fall short of the poorly expressed or unspoken expectations of the leader.

There never seems to be time to work “ON” the business together. So it falls back to the intense leader to do it themselves and the cycle repeats itself, over and over – with more anger, frustration and impatience on the part of the leader.

Steve Jobs: Passion and Intensity

Walter Issacson’s Steve Jobs is a fascinating tale of a very complicated and talented man and I looked forward to this story of an iconic leader. It occurred to me that Job’s passion for the various Apple products he brought to the market must be reflective of the passionate leader that he was. What I came to understand as you looked at how Steve Jobs’ life evolved was that he was unbelievably passionate about products, but extremely intense about making them happen and blind to the impact on the people that worked with him:

This is a book about the roller coaster life and searingly intense personality of a creative entrepreneur whose passion for perfection and ferocious drive revolutionized six industries: personal computers, animated movies, music, phones, tablet computing, and digital publishing. You might even add a seventh, retail stores, which Jobs did not quite revolutionize but did reimagine. (1)

He made this incredible impact upon our world but;

He was not a model boss or human being, tidily packaged for emulation.  Driven by demons, he could drive those around him to fury and despair. But his personality and passions and products were all interrelated, just as Apple’s hardware and software tended to be, as if part of an integrated system. (2)

Jobs’ passion and intensity were the keys to Apple’s initial success but as it grew, the Board decided to bring in John Sculley (Apple CEO, 1983 – 1993), a very successful leader from PepsiCo. Jobs tried to go along with the change for the good of Apple, but;

For Sculley, the problem was that Jobs, when he was no longer in courtship or manipulative mode, was frequently obnoxious, rude, selfish and nasty to other people. He found Jobs’ boorish behavior as despicable as Jobs’ found Sculley’s lack of passion for product details. (3)

The friction between the two, and Jobs with the rest of the company, caused Steve Jobs to be forced out of Apple in 1985.  And he continued to create in his own way, with NeXT Computers and Pixar studios, before returning to Apple to create the iPod, iPhone and iPad, true world changing products.


I think the two well known leaders I have mentioned in this paper, Bob Knight and Steve Jobs, reflect the complex duel and impact of passion and intensity in what makes leaders great. In their fields, they have reached the very apex of success. Both were terribly passionate about their work – Knight for success on the basketball court and Jobs for the products he created that revolutionized so many industries and influenced how we experience our world.

But the intensity of their personal styles and behavior reflected a “…Nietzschean attitude that ordinary rules didn’t apply” to either of them. (4) As Jobs dealt with the illness that took his life (and I would encourage you to go to watch his June 2005 commencement address at Stanford), a greater appreciation for what his intensity in his human interactions cost him emerged.

The same cannot be said for Bob Knight, although his personal connection with his former players and friends and his charitable impacts have been quietly happening for years. The simplest way to put it is that at their worst, which they exhibited with maddening unpredictability and frequency, they were bullies. And we’ve all encountered examples of them in our worlds as well.

It just seems to me that all the intensity with the attendant negativity, meanness and condescension to those who don’t “get it” or disagree, is just so much needless overkill that robs others of truly getting on board to a leader’s true passion. The focus that accompanies a tough minded discipline towards a goal helps everyone win; people can rally around that.

The success Paul Purcell has created and sustained at Robert W. Baird is a testament to the return on investment of a truly passionate leader… and my hope is that some leaders can find a path to channel their intensity into a passion that attracts others not just to their successes, but to who they are as a person as well. I offer my own compassion for those leaders who regrettably find that how they are perceived is a surprise to them.


I would sincerely like to thank Dr. John J. Pauly, Provost, Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin for his support, encouragement and contributions to this work.

I would also like to thank my friend, and former client, Michael Adams, for his editorial suggestions and moral support.

* Please contact me at coachwilly [at] for a summary of The No Asshole Rule by Robert Sutton, Ph.D. and its use by Paul Purcell @ Robert W. Baird & Co.

1) Steve Jobs, by Walter Issacson, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2011, pages XX-Xxi

2) Ibid. page Xxi

3) Ibid. page 195

4) Ibid. page 313


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