*originally published in my April newsletter
I’ve been speaking about leadership for several years now. I’ve read hundreds of leadership books and articles and case studies and biographies, although I have to space them out because eventually your brain begs you to stop torturing yourself and to go do something enjoyable instead. Why? Because after you’ve read a few of them, you start to realize that everyone is saying exactly the same thing. Be nice, listen to others, get your team involved, servant leadership, leaders eat last, admit your mistakes – the messages about how to become a well-respected leader are so repetitive that tedious doesn’t even begin to describe it. I’ve attempted to structure my own leadership presentations as uniquely as possible, but ultimately the messages are strikingly similar.
But lately I’ve started reading more and more biographies of the “great” leaders who have built billion-dollar empires or otherwise done things that have made people want to build statues of them – Steve Jobs, George Washington, Rupert Murdoch, Jack Welch, etc. And the more of these biographies I read, the more I’m struck by how not terribly good most of these people are. Steve Jobs was famously difficult to work for and created a culture at Apple that has produced virtually no standout individuals, a fact usually attributed to Jobs’ inability to tolerate anyone that might even remotely be considered a rival. George Washington receives most of his praise from people who didn’t have to work directly with him and progressively less and less from those who were subjected to his imperious temper on a regular basis. Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes are almost comically paranoid and have managed to infuse their personalities into the organization they run. Jack Welch fired more people in the history of business. These are not the qualities of the sensitive, open, servant leader that we’re all told we should strive to become.
So what’s going on? Why are people like me telling audiences to engage in “good” leadership practices when “great” leaders rarely practice them?
The crux of the problem is that the qualities that create good leaders are not the same qualities that create great leaders. Good leaders are conciliatory and understanding; great leaders are insistent and uncompromising. Good leaders put others first; great leaders put their vision first. Good leaders usually make others want to follow them; great leaders, on the other hand, usually make people want to be a part of the great thing they’re trying to achieve.
Unfortunately, most of the conversation about leadership behaves as though we all have to choose only one of these approaches. This article is a perfect example: good leaders do this, great leaders do that. As a result, we’ve ended up teaching ourselves to believe that good leaders will be well-respected but only moderately successful, and great leaders almost have to be terrible people in order to achieve their outsized success.
This isn’t true at all, of course. Business books are filled with examples of people who have managed to be both good and great – Herb Kelleher at Southwest, Horst Schulze at Ritz-Carlton, Captain Abrashoff with the U.S. Navy. Unfortunately, those books tend to focus primarily on the qualities that make us good rather than great. Plenty of books will tell you about Kelleher’s sense of humor and intense focus on getting to know Southwest’s employees, but comparatively few talk about his uncompromising devotion to the establishment of Southwest and the quote-unquote “ruthless” ways that he went about securing his company’s success.
What’s the point of all this? It’s that most of us, if asked, would want to be both good and great, both well-loved and admired. You can’t really afford a 300-foot superyacht if you’re only good at something, and it’s hard to get people to spend a week with you on your 300-foot superyacht if you’re unpleasant to be around. Humans are nothing if not greedy, and all of us would like to have it both ways.
Luckily for us, it’s actually possible here. If you want to be a good leader and a great one, you need to recognize that they require different skill sets. Having an uncompromising vision for the future doesn’t mean that you can’t afford to listen to others. Demanding perfection from your team doesn’t mean that you have to castigate them publicly anytime they fall a little short. As long as we keep treating leadership as an either/or proposition, we’ll continue to have fewer good/great leaders than we are capable of.
It really is possible to have your cake and eat it too. Which is great news, because I love me some cake.