Holla at the Ladies

August 26, 2013

“Everything was for tomorrow, but tomorrow never came. The present was only a bridge and on this bridge they are still groaning, as the world groans, and not one idiot ever thinks of blowing up the bridge.” – Henry Miller

Last week The Harvard Business Review’s Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic tweeted a terse treatise on the deficit of leadership in business.

Essentially Tomas believes that we often mistake confidence and charisma for competence.  Hubris is mistaken for courage and further, he believes this occurs more often in men, the sex more likely to demonstrate these “bold” characteristics.   Since “arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent,” many times our leaders aren’t just ineffective, they isolate and do harm in their positions, often at the detriment of their companies.  The blog makes a fairly compelling data-based argument for our collective failure to promote the types of characteristics that lead to transformational change.  Hiring manages should read this piece.

Good leaders can effect incremental, measurable change, win consensus and get people to accomplish an organization’s small, tactical elements that lead to successful execution of the vision.  I love the now oft quoted line from the movie “Lincoln” when the president stresses to Thaddeus Stevens the importance of focusing on the seemingly banal tactics for the sake of successfully arriving at the big goal.  He tells Stevens that being morally correct and strident in ideology is not enough if you are to accomplish the thing that will help get to the big goal, in this case the abolition of slavery.  Lincoln uses the metaphor of knowing true north on the compass.  A compass, I learnt when I was surveying, it’ll… it’ll point you True North from where you’re standing, but it’s got no advice about the swamps and desert and chasm that you’ll encounter along the way.  If in pursuit of your destination, you plunge ahead, heedless of obstacles, and achieve nothing more than to sink in a swamp… What’s the use of knowing True North?

This isn’t to say that leaders can’t or shouldn’t be bold.   They don’t call it “vision” for nothing.  But having a grand idea and a sweeping plan will only get you so far if you fail to get the cogs in the machine moving in unison. Tomas states that “whether in sports, politics or business, the best leaders are usually humble — and whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women than men. For example, women outperform men on emotional intelligence, which is a strong driver of modest behaviors.”

I think Tomas makes good points but I would not over-correct and get into gender-bashing.   I think a big idea here is that it is  important to avoid blindly subscribing to conventional wisdom.  Innovation requires deviance from established paradigms or better, more creative ways of affecting a paradigm.  We should question our most established assumptions about business management, client satisfaction, market demand and our models in general.  Tomas exposes a folly we’re all familiar with; the surprise that such a good interviewer can end up being a poor leader, a divisive figure.