Do we really need flamboyant visionaries to run our companies?

Photo by Hamed Saber

The Economist decided to wage an all front attack against humility in leadership and management. One of Its recent columns discusses what kinds of leaders make the best CEOs. The argument?

In general, the corporate world needs its flamboyant visionaries and raging egomaniacs rather more than its humble leaders and corporate civil servants. Think of the people who have shaped the modern business landscape, and “faceless” and “humble” are not the first words that come to mind.

It looks like this claim comes just out of the best management books of the beginning of the last century. As Bill Taylor from Harvard Business Review Blog points out, most of the claims in the column are not only wrong, but plainly misleading:

The crux of The Economist’s argument relies on what’s known as the Great Man Theory of History. After trumpeting the virtues of business geniuses such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Lou Gerstner, and Jack Welch, it then generalizes from this handful of larger-than-life moguls: “The best ambassadors for business are the outsize figures who have changed the world and who feel no need to apologise for themselves or their calling.” It’s an intriguing essay and a good read. It’s also a false choice — and a bad reading of history. For one thing, when it comes to larger-than-life CEOs, I can name as many scoundrels and failures as I can geniuses and world-changers.

My view? Three things are wrong with The Economist’s view.

First, the assumption that there is only one way. Maybe, for some companies and in certain situations, the flamboyant visionaries are the best fit as CEO’s. But not in every situation. Some companies need the quiet leadership behind the scene, the steady hand that improves and creates processes that lead to growth and innovation. Taylor’s choice of the historic Great Man Theory seems appropriate. It too claimed that only certain people are fit for leadership roles. We know today that this attitude was plain wrong.

Second, the assumption that the flamboyant visionaries must be in the top of the pyramid. You can be in a leadership role and create change in your company, without being the CEO, especially if the CEO in that company needs to deal more with management issues, where the “raging egomaniacs” are just not cut out to do the job. Management and leadership are different things that require different talents. The column refers to Bill Gates. We need to remember what Bill Gates is doing today: As Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton: write in their book Now, Discover Your Strength:

“…[Y]ou will excel only by maximizing your strengths, never by fixing your weaknesses. This is not the same as saying ‘ignore your weakness’. The people we described did not ignore their weakness. Instead, they did something much more effective. They found ways to manage around their weakness, thereby freeing them up to hone their strengths to a sharper point. Each of them did this a little differently. Pam liberated herself by hiring an outside consultant to write the strategic plan. Bill Gates did something similar. He selected a partner, Steve Ballmer, to run the company, allowing him to return to software development and rediscover his strengths’ path…

Third, when you read the column you feel almost like there have never been hugely successful leaders that changed the world while acting humbly. Has humble leaders never brought change and created value to society? Michael Dell comes to mind as someone who succeeded doing both. The research and consulting advice that The Economist is complaining about did not come out of thin air and it is based both on empirical evidence and experience. But what does that have to do with anything. The Economist wants a good story. A flamboyant leader, even if he will be less effective.

I am amazed how even a respected journal like The Economist falls prey to the conventional wisdoms and continues to harbor management principles that are almost a hundred years old, although we have so much research and experience suggesting otherwise.


6 Responses to “Do we really need flamboyant visionaries to run our companies?”

  1. Randy Zwitch Says:

    I absolutely agree with your sentiment. I often hear the same type of argument when people say “Most CEOs don’t have an MBA!” Well, yes. But that doesn’t mean that having one is going to keep you out of the club! Nor will being a calm, rational leader.

    Your example of Michael Dell is an excellent one. I’m not sure that if I saw a picture of him that I’d be able to identify him. I can’t remember the last time I heard his *full* name (although, I hear or read the name “Dell” pretty much everyday). And yet, he runs one of the most successful tech companies in the world.

    I think Warren Buffett fits the same mold. Yes, his name is mentioned quite often, but in terms of successful leadership of a company without being flamboyant, there’s no one less flamboyant than him! Living in the same modest house, driving a Buick (?), and leaving all of his money to charity when he dies. That’s pretty much the polar opposite of who The Economist is describing.

  2. sherfelad Says:

    As usual, you are so right! Buffet is a great example that did not come to my mind. The fact that it is hard to think about these examples is exactly the point. We think that the fact we know or can easily remember names of the flamboyant leaders means thy are better. It is a simple and known heuristic. I am just surprised The Economist is suffering from it…
    Thanks for your reply!

  3. Jono Barel Says:

    I think you’re raising a very important point here. It really is a cult of personality, and the idea that “flamboyance” is a skillset that’s vital to the success of a company is a dangerous one.

    But it’s not that The Economist is getting it backwards; it’s not that CEOs shouldn’t be flamboyant. It’s just that flamboyance, while making them memorable, isn’t what makes them good CEOs.

  4. Jono Barel Says:

    Oh. Ha. Looks like I’m a bit late to the party, “innit”.

  5. sherfelad Says:

    Hey Jono,
    I agree with you. There is a causality issue and some form of availability bias (when we think of CEOs the flamboyant ones come to mind more easily). There are CEOs who are successful despite being flamboyant and not because of it. I believe that these CEOs knew how to complement and sourrund themselves with the right people and processes to allow the success and to prevent the “flamboyant in them” from taking over too much.
    However, as you mention, it is a sign of an even bigger phenomenon of shallowness and cult of personality which is not only running our business, but also our politics and other areas of life. It is time to put the right role models in the front…
    Thanks for you comments, they never come to late…


  6. Leader of Consequence, not Dominance and Arrogance | The Fuqua Experience Says:

    […] Elad posited a question, “Do we really need flamboyant visionaries to run our companies? (link)”  The Economist seems to think so, even while admitting there are plenty of Jeff […]

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