The Idol of Leadership

I'm obsessed with what it means to be a leader, because bad leaders are everywhere and they seem to set the standard for how leadership is judged. I am fascinated by how bad bosses successfully cultivate a perception that they are competent. Bad leadership leads to incompetent, unproductive and demoralized people. It also results in two common injustices: sociopaths thriving in leadership roles and integrity seeing its role diminished in many industries. Why are we so often at the mercy of leaders who aren't qualified to lead? Why are there so many unqualified jerks being handed the idol of leadership? What's holding back integrity?

What is a Leader?

Let's first establish what a 'leader' is. Leaders are not necessarily CEOs. They're not necessarily at the very top. They head departments. They conspicuously coordinate projects. They're charged with directing others toward a common goal. They're also tasked with representing the interests of an entity. They're expected to resolve disputes and uncover solutions for efficiency and productivity on behalf of everyone they lead. They're the ones who usually get - or go out of their way to claim - the credit for a job well done.

Leaders, whether they are managers or administrators or account coordinators, are trusted to exercise good judgement, not just for a company's bottom line, but for the well being of the brand culture of the company. The single biggest criteria for effective leadership, in my estimation, is an ability to make decisions founded on integrity and farsightedness rather than emotion and shortsightedness. The best leaders go out of their way to allow every decision to operate on a guiding principle transcending their own importance.

Leaders are sought out based on one or more of the four following qualities:

1) Really good at getting results - making good numbers go up and bad numbers go down. You're simply good at what you do. A hard worker.

2) A history of loyalty - either to a company or to people in charge of making leadership decisions.  You know the right people. You've made the right connections.

3) You're handsome and/or pretty - people like being around you; they feel inspired and motivated when you're around just by how you look and how you carry yourself.

4) You are charismatic and good at reading others' expectations of you and using it to your advantage. You've been nice to the right people.

From the above, it's probably clear that I believe that personality matters when it comes to political decisions about who is chosen for leadership. I am fascinated by the concept of leadership because there is so much poor leadership in the world. Poor judgment by poor leaders is frustrating to watch, because they never seem to lose power - or the right to that golden parachute - as a result of bad judgment that would get anyone else fired without so much as a severance. Incompetence only seems to pay itself out in dividends rather than being corrected. It astounds me how many leaders continually fail at their jobs, but by sheer political persuasion convince their constituents or their shareholders they're the only ones for the job. Similarly, anecdotes from my friends and colleagues about so-called leaders who fail to inspire growth abound.

Very rarely do you come across leaders who have been chosen for their communication skills. The burden of expectation for good, skillful communication often falls to the managers' teams. Managers - or Leaders - give orders and expect them to be followed, no questions asked. Oftentimes, it's never questioned whether or not the Leader is providing her or his team with acceptable communication. Even if that communication is poor, or not enough, or terrible, the team is expected to disassemble that information and make it work. Poor Leaders, in short, are not often held accountable for poor communication. Instead, those under the Leader suffer. This is what is often referred to 'managing upward,' and it happens so often it's practically the norm.

Not all leaders are born with the same gifts. A band's manager may be tapped for her charisma, salesmanship, and music biz savvy. Charity heads may have deep ties to their communities, and possess deep passion for their cause, a passion that inspires others. Your style and effectiveness once you start leading has everything to do with how you get the job. Were you chosen because you're charismatic and attractive? Is it because you have a forceful personality? Were you hired for political reasons? Are you a bullshit artist, or just an incredibly hard worker?

It's often the case that people are handed power and responsibility proportionate to their attractiveness and charisma. Businesses like to act as if this isn't true. It is true. It's a huge factor. It's not constant, and there are exceptions, but it's common enough to be something that is. I'm not even judging the practice of hiring by attractiveness rather than ability. Fit, attractive people inspire confidence. It's human nature. When the right person, the one who can improve the company, is passed over for sake of someone more attractive, then it goes from 'human nature' to 'unfair.' The best part? It's really hard to prove this sort of bias. Usually, "we thought the tall, fit girl with the high cheekbones was simply more qualified to lead than the 43 year old who didn't smile enough."

Let's also establish that leaders come into their roles in different ways. Some are groomed for years for one position. Others sweep in and blow the right people away with their natural talent and ability. Others have networked brilliantly and fall into jobs by virtue of who they know.

There is no one formula to being tapped for success and notoriety, but sadly, it doesn't hurt if you're not very nice. You may be asked to be an angel or an asshole in a leadership role, but let's not kid ourselves. We entrust leadership positions to those who scare us a little bit, because that fear inspires us to believe that anything we can't accomplish, they will accomplish instead.

Mean People Suck... But Can They Lead?

Now 'bad leaders,' on the other hand, tackle all these problems with arrogance, with shortsightedness, and with an attitude that they aren't accountable to the people they lead. We use an interest logic when excusing jerks in positions of leadership. "Oh, he's a jerk. But you'd have to be, in that job. You'd never get anything done if you weren't."

I've witnessed my share of thoughtless and selfish people - people with no business making decisions that affect the lives of people under them - being handed unqualified amounts of power. They possess limited understanding about what leadership is. For them, leadership is about the constant struggle to consolidate power. This act of consolidating power, aside from using up an enormous amount of energy, also takes pride and a nasty, selfish streak.

Nastiness is seen as a strength, particularly in corporate culture, and particularly in our society. It gets attention, and is a trait that can be wielded to get things done. Interestingly enough, the reason that mean-ness is an accepted norm is that many industries have fallen into the trap of putting assholes on its front line because they are convinced bristly, prickly characters are the only ones who do the job right. Executives who value bluster over business, swagger over savvy, are easily impressed by arrogance, and evidence of this is everywhere.

They're right that jerks do thrive as leaders, but jerks don't thrive at solving problems or inspiring loyalty. They thrive at holding onto power. It's all they do well. They're crammed into prominent positions everywhere. We've set a baseline standard for the kind of behavior expected in positions of leadership. We've confused arrogance and mean-ness with no nonsense aggressiveness. We can't tell the difference between the two, but the difference is everything. It is possible to be concise, demanding and motivated without being an insufferable prick. It is possible to, as a leader, demand the best and take no bullshit from others while allowing your decisions and considerations to be motivated by integrity and wisdom. This is not a myth. It is something that is do-able.

It is often assumed that special knowledge is required to be a good leader. It's not. Calling it special knowledge implies some static set of rules and plans. The qualities that any good leader must possess are common sense, courtesy, a strong work ethic, strong communication skills, and a grand vision for how people should be led.

It should not be said that jerks need to be eliminated from business culture. That would also be a disaster. Some entrepreneurial types, wunderkinds, game developers, and tech pioneers possess insufferable social qualities, and a remarkable absence of good judgement when it comes to leading others, or making grand decisions on behalf of an entire company. But they do have value. Those very qualities push them to innovate. Such jerks have a role to play, but it shouldn't always be as leaders. We need to temper the brutish eccentricity of the geniuses and iconoclasts with the measured wisdom of experience, integrity and farsightedness that our best leaders should possess. There is not enough of that in the world. There needs to be more.


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