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.