You know this person: He’s the celebrated leader in his company and a darling of his industry. His organization is profiled as the next big thing. He’s written up as a leader bursting with innovation and purpose and dreams. Money and talent flow to this guy as investors and resume-builders jockey to jump on the rocket before it cruises out of the stratosphere.
It looks too good to be true because it is.
Just beneath the surface of all the fawning is a darker reality. Yes, this guy is intellectually brilliant. but his leadership approach is an explosive cocktail of intimidation, perfectionism, and cultivation of cut throat competition. He dresses people down publicly for real and perceived missteps. He discards those who don’t wear his brand of career cologne – degrees from his favored schools, time with his preferred firms – with a dismissive wave of the hand. If you look closely, you’ll probably see a string of broken professional and personal relationships. He sees them as collateral damage, as examples of people who couldn’t hack living in the big time.
It’s easy to think that people are successful because of their character flaws rather than in spite of them. So we begin to celebrate those flaws and more sadly, emulate them. We hope that by acting like this guy, we can get rich, powerful, and famous like him.
Here are six character flaws that we have somehow turned into virtues, because so many people in power display them.
Arrogance – He just thinks he’s confident. Actually, he’s arrogant. He’s set the dial to transmit and turned off the receiver. People around him stop telling him the truth because they don’t want to get shut down. He’d better hope he’s as good as he thinks he is because he really is on his own.
Ladder-climbing – He lives by a simple maxim: Never be satisfied. And while it’s healthy to want to do your best, his restless ladder climbing makes him tired and joyless as he compares himself to everyone else. He’ll have a tough time getting others to join his grand crusade once he hits the top job. They will know whose back he has: his own.
Perfectionism – Excellence rocks. But when faced with his perfectionism, even the most basic task becomes a major stressor. People avoid taking risks because they’re afraid of his persistent criticism. Creativity dies and the organization slows down as team members second guess their work.
Calculation – You get the feeling that you’re in a game of shadows, a corporate episode of Survivor. You feel like you’re always trying to guess what angle he’s playing. You hold your cards close to your chest lest he take your idea and then then throw you under the bus.
Entitlement – While others are making sacrifices for the greater good, he says, “I’ve worked too hard and come too far to take any role that pays less than what I have now.” With a straight face! I guess he believed all of those people who told him he was special his whole life.
Ruthlessness – It’s one thing to be clear-headed, decisive, and firm. It’s another to be a jerk. He disposes of people like they’re Kleenex, firing and hiring at will. You get the feeling that he’s a tough SOB for no other reason than he gets off on intimidating others.
All of these character flaws are really good things gone bad. Imagine an organization that valued the virtues obscured by these vices:
Courage (vs. Arrogance) – It takes a strong person to invite contrary opinions and tough feedback. In fact, that kind of courage is much stronger than the bravado of arrogance. It says, “I have strong opinions but I could be wrong. And I’m open to what you have to say.”
Initiative (vs. Ladder-climbing) – Every organization needs the energy of self-starters. The difference between that initiative and ladder-climbing is where the energy is focused – on serving the good of the organization vs. serving personal ambitions.
Joyful Achievement (vs. Perfectionism) – Achievement addicts love the stimulation of a challenge and the knowledge that they gave it their best. They instinctively look for the good while never shirking the fact that next time it could be even better.
Authenticity (vs. Calculation) – Authentic people know that everyone joins a group for a mixture of personal and shared reasons. They act on the belief that there’s a win-win deal hiding in the weeds if we just look for it.
Contribution (vs. Entitlement) – Rather than saying, “I deserve it!” this person asks, “How can I contribute here?” They’re on a hunt for the place where their talents will make a huge difference knowing that all sorts of rewards – position, esteem, accomplishments, compensation, satisfaction – follow great contributions.
Compassionate Clear-headedness (vs. Ruthlessness) – Leaders have to make tough calls. But you can make those calls and deliver difficult messages with respect that communicates dignity and the best values of the team. That’s a sort strength that trumps brute force every time.
I’d want to work in a place led by that sort of leader. So would you. We would come to work juiced by the prospect of working on important things with people we really respect instead of showing up in constant attack or defend mode. We’d do great things together.