Let’s get one thing on the table from the start: Being a jerk can make you successful––very successful.
It’s naive to say that only the virtuous become truly great leaders. I agree with critics of the leadership industry when they say it’s childish and often foolish to think that good character is the only path to wealth and power––or more to the point, the most efficient path.
I don’t preach rainbows and puppy dogs. Let’s be blunt––
Leadership is about power. You can amass a lot of power by being a complete jerk––by stomping on people, by being ruthless and heartless, selfish and greedy. You can rise to the highest ranks by lying and cheating. You can be be a complete fraud and yet become a competent and effective leader.
And you can make yourself rich doing it.
The ugly truth is that you don’t have to be a good person to be an effective leader and lousy people have the same opportunity at fame and fortune that you do.
So why bother to be a good person?
Critics and skeptics of character based leadership training cite many examples to support their negative view.
Steve Jobs was obsessive, myopic and often very abusive––yet he enjoyed a level of loyalty envied by nicer guys in leadership positions.
Bill Gates was ruthless and far less than transparent––yet he went on to become one of the most respected and revered business and philanthropic leaders of our time.
Edison and the Wright brothers were obsessively proprietary, jealous and maybe even paranoid. Yet they changed the world with their achievements.
Even Walt Disney has been exposed as having been tyrannical, bigoted and horribly vindictive to those who stood in his way. Yet he’s still seen as an iconic symbol of visionary, creative leadership and was revered by many who worked for him.
Although critics often understate their eventual downfalls, they will even cite Bernie Madoff and even the Enron gang, Fastow, Lay and Skillings as examples of leaders who rose to great levels of success as liars, cheats and frauds.
It’s true––these guys made a lot of money and enjoyed a great deal of power and control before their fall––but fall they did.
There is a world of difference, ethically, between a Kenneth Lay and a Steve Jobs. Lay was a crook. At worst, Jobs was an a-hole. Still, leadership training skeptics have a valid point––how can we continue, with a straight face, to preach that compassion and empathy are the keys to becoming a great leader?
How can we, in good conscience, earn our livings telling aspiring leaders that the way to the top is through honesty, transparency and building the trust of the people around you?
How can we say that selfless service is the highest calling of the authentic leader?
How can we insist that doing the right thing is the right thing to do––when so many get over doing the exact opposite?
Because it is.
At some point, you’ve got to decide what you want to do with your most precious commodity––the time you have in this life. You’ve got to decide how you want to live with the people around you and most of all, you’ve got to decide exactly who it is you want to see in your bathroom mirror every morning.
Leadership is about power.
Power is simply your ability or capacity to act or perform effectively. Power is your ability to get things done––and that’s the most important factor when it comes to leadership performance.
The problem is––lousy people have just as much access to power as you do. Sometimes more.
Lousy people, as critics of character based leadership love to point out, are very often more politically savvy. They can have a well developed ability to focus and look past negative consequences to see the net profit. They are often more ambitious and even more charismatic than leaders who cling to arcane values and principles.
Another key area where the critics get is right is in measurement.
They justifiably say that leadership experts do a poor job of relating character development and interpersonal skills to production outcomes. There are three problems in this area:
First, it is difficult to directly correlate character and soft skill mastery to production output. There are simply too many other factors that affect outcome. The relationship between what Covey called “Principle Centered Leadership” and the short term bottom-line is not direct––it’s patently indirect.
Second is that most measures of leadership effectiveness depend on perception. Is your boss more receptive to your ideas? Do you feel you’re being treated fairly? Do you feel cared for?
These are subjective measures and may not relate at all to the effectiveness, or even to the character of a leader, particularly in difficult times. They may be useful in assessing character development or behavioral change, but are virtually useless when it comes to correlating those changes to production performance.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the success of character based leadership is often only tangible when compared to its absence. Research shows clearly that over time, leaders with good character produce better and more consistent results than do crooks, liars, tyrants and manipulators––over time. It’s nearly impossible to see a direct cause and effect relationship between character and the bottom line––especially when disconnected, cruel or despotic leaders can produce the same, or sometimes even better results.
What can be measured––and I agree with the critics, what should be measured are some of the most tangible benefits of character based leadership. The results of these factors do immediately impact the profit and loss statement:
- Are people staying longer?
- Are they creating better ideas and more innovations?
- Do people feel comfortable communicating problems?
- Do they participate in solutions?
- Is there open and productive communication between organization levels?
- What is the degree of lost and sick time due to stress, bullying and harassment?
- How much does the organization spend on litigation, internally and externally?
- What is the level of engagement on the job?
- Are people are willing to sacrifice and stay during tough times?
For every example of ruthless, dictatorial, abusive, dishonest leadership, we can cite another example of someone who is successful doing it the right way.
And when you look deeper at some of the actions of even some of the ethically questionable leaders like Jobs and Gates, you’ll find that they also express, at least to some degree, the qualities and values we stubbornly cling to.
Leaders with character produce remarkable benefits in the positive areas and dramatic reductions in costs by mitigating the negative.
Look at Sam Walton of Wal-Mart and George Zimmer of Men’s Wearhouse. These leaders built tremendous companies with a high degree of character and principle. They focused on service to their employees and customers as well as the shareholders. They practiced courageous, compassionate leadership and insisted on honesty, transparency and personal connections with the people they served.
Look at how each of those organizations changed after they were gone.
Of course, both companies are still successful––but how much more successful were they before they deviated from the character based leadership embodied in their founders? How many problems could have been avoided had they honored those principles?
Look at Tony Hsieh of Zappos, Gary Hirshberg of Stoneyfield Farms, Don Amos of Aflac and Jim Skinner of McDonald’s. These leaders were all included in OnlineMBA.com’s Top 15 Ethical CEOs of 2015. All are highly successful personally, and all have increased the profitability of their organizations…
Without being jerks!
All these leaders placed a great emphasis on character, service, and ethics. I particularly like the story of Dan Amos:
“Profits have grown nearly tenfold since Dan Amos took the helm at Aflac way back in 1990. Ninety-nine out of 100 CEOs would use that as justification to raise their salaries tenfold as well. Not Dan Amos: he volunteered to allow shareholders to vote on the executive compensation plan, the first major U.S. corporation to ever do so.”
His commitment to character based leadership makes Aflac “one of the best American companies to work for” according to MBAOnline.
Can you really succeed without being a jerk?
Absolutely. But we’ve got a fight on our hands.
Ironically, as I write this article we’re in the throes on one of the most unusual, contentious and calling it as I see it, petulant political campaigns in history. For the first time since we’ve measured these things, our two Presidential front-runners have the highest disapproval ratings of any of the candidates who started the race. Polls show that we consider Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump untrustworthy, selfish and dishonest.
We’re about to elect someone we don’t trust, can’t stand and who places their interests above ours.
Should we just throw in the towel?
No. Quite the opposite.
It’s past time to insist that our leaders are decent people––and to hold ourselves, as leaders, to the highest standards.
It’s not time to quit on character based leadership. It’s time to restore the core values of genuine courage, compassion and service to leadership. It’s time to embed these values in our aspiring leaders and replace, not reward leaders who somehow succeed while abusing us.
Liars, cheats and manipulators can produce results in the short term. These results are not sustainable. We live in a moment where a final decision is unavoidable.
We can continue to promote and reward leaders who lie, cheat and steal and just do our best to grab whatever we can for me and mine. We can simply train people how best to attain and manipulate power, maximize short-term profits and prioritize material success above human cost.
Or, we can start a revival. We can restore character based leadership in our businesses, in our communities and in our society. We can recognize, support and reward leaders who do the right thing––for others as well as for themselves. We can decide that the time we share with one another is worth more than a few dollars––that our time together is the reward and how we use that time determines the value of that reward.
The skeptics are right––we need to do a better job. But that doesn’t mean abandoning character.
I will continue to help leaders become better people. That’s how we’re going to get better leaders.
And that’s how we’re going to build better businesses, better communities, better nations––