Bill Gates was in a reflective mood recently, talking about the highly unusual leadership style that helped him lead teams of high-achievers to build Microsoft.

It's a demanding, exacting technique that most people couldn't pull off, if we're being honest. However, it's certainly worth understanding and making your own assessment. 

Gates described a leadership strategy that I've come to call "negative praise."

It began with the understated admission he made on an episode of Dax Shepard's Armchair Expert podcast: "I certainly wasn't a sweetheart when I ran Microsoft." Gates went on to explain further--including a crucial eight-word sentence: 

If you push yourself super, super hard, and you're so tough on [yourself] when you made a mistake ... you definitely project that on to other people. Particularly if you're trying to move at full speed. 

In the business I was in, every day counted. We had to see what we were doing wrong. So we said, hey, this is not for everyone, to sit here and work these hours, and be this tough on each other.  

The reason you're here is because you're amazing. 

So don't get confused when we're being kind of tough. We're a team. We're in this together. 

And you know, every once in a while, we may have been tougher than we needed to be. 

Granted, this is a generalized overview from Gates, and it sounds like the memory and tone are tempered by 40 additional years of life experience. But, it's also quite self-aware and intriguing. 

It comes down to convincing very talented and accomplished people that they're not living up to expectations--while inspiring them with that news, rather than turning them off.

In other words, whether explicit or implied, it combines a negative message ("you're not keeping up") with a positive, praising one ("you're amazing").

It also squares, whether Gates realized it or not at the time, with how Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck advocates framing praise for children: praising effort (which leads to a "growth-oriented mindset") instead of praising innate qualities (which leads to a "fixed mindset").

As Gates models this, I think there are at least five components of "negative praise" that apply, no matter what kind of industry you're in, or what kind of team you're trying to lead. 

1. Extreme competence and confidence.

This is the threshold, and the thing that makes the rest of the negative praise model possible. Gates clearly believed that he was the equal (at least) of everyone else working with him.

It's really a two-parter: the members of your team (a) have to have high confidence in their abilities, but also (b) must have respect for your abilities and competence, to the point where they can be motivated to keep up. They have to perceive that the team really is outpacing them.

Can you claim that level of competence? Do you truly believe it? Do others believe it?

2. Clearly defined goals.

The most important thing any leader can give his or her team is an objective worth their time. So, it follows that negative praise only works if the leader can articulate those goals clearly, both for the short-term and the long-term.

  • "We want to finish a working prototype for Widget X by the end of the year."
  • "We need to convince the clients at Spacely Sprockets to expand their order 40 percent by November."
  • "We want to be the champions of our adult recreational soccer league this season."

Can you sum up your goal in a single sentence? Can everyone on the team do so, too?

3. Clearly defined competition.

One of the big red flags when business owners try to raise investment is if they're asked to talk about their big competitors, and they can't do it. ("We don't have any direct competitors," for example.)

That's almost certainly wrong. But even if it were right, it's almost certainly a disadvantage.

Negative praise is a competitive model. It requires a rival. It's about setting up the competition both internally and externally, benchmarking yourself to them, and insisting you'll do what's necessary to win.

Do you know who your competitors are? And do you know what they're doing while you're reading this right now?

4. Ability to recruit true A-players.

This component goes to honesty: Being honest with your team, and being honest with yourself. The question is whether you truly have recruited "amazing" people.

Do they believe it? And do you believe it? Because none of this works otherwise. 

So, make an honest assessment: Are you a so-called "A player" recruiting other "A players"? Or are you a "B" who recruits "C's"?

(If it's the latter, go back to the first component, and figure out how to reposition things so that you're actually an "A.")

5. Insane personal work ethic.

Gates goes on in his interview to talk about his legendary work ethic when he was at Microsoft. It's a pace he's criticized more recently, at least from the point of view of his 60-something-year-old self giving advice to his 20-something version.

"In my 20s, all I did was try and make Microsoft succeed. That was it," he said. "Not weekends, not vacations, not broad reading. And I loved it."

This is the double-edged sword. Growth-oriented praise only works if you're trying to grow too, and it's obvious to everyone. It's not effective for an absentee landlord.

But it also means that very few people can keep it up forever.  

So, ask yourself: Are you the hardest working person you know? And how long are you willing to keep that pace?

These are some high bars, for sure. They're not for everyone, and they're certainly not for everyone in every field.

But if you can pull it off, you'll follow in the footsteps of some truly great leaders, Gates first among them.