A Tale of Two Leadership Gurus

Less than a week into the new year and already I have two articles about Leadership in my in-tray. The first is by Dr. Travis Bradberry (Author of #1 bestselling book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and president of TalentSmart, world’s leading provider of emotional intelligence.) titled 8 Paradoxical Habits Of Wildly Successful People. The second is by Dr. Jeffrey Pfeffer (Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the Stanford Business School) titled Getting beyond the BS of leadership literature.

Bradberry argues that the reason that there are so many theories about leadership is that most wildly successful people are complex — so complex that many of their defining qualities are paradoxical. Rather than an “either/or” set of static characteristics, they’re more likely to demonstrate both. He then lists off eight paradoxical qualities:

1. They’re polite, yet completely unafraid to rock the boat.

2. They’re deeply passionate, yet rational and objective about their work.

3. They’re convergent and divergent thinkers.

4. They’re both energetic and calm.

5. They like to work and play.

6. They’re ambiverts; they are both extraverts and introverts depending on the situation.

7. They’re naïve and smart.

8. They’re both humble and proud.

I must that I am not comfortable with this classification methodology. For example, Ambiverts are not both extraverts and introverts. There is a trait called extraversion which normally distributed in the population. Two-thirds of the population fall into plus or minus one standard deviation: these people have average levels of extraversion and are by definition, ambiverts. Extraverts are in the top 1/6th and introverts in the bottom 1/6th. The same criticism may be levelled at some of the other Bradberry paradoxical qualities. Many of the pairs are located at the opposite ends of a spectrum.

Pfeffer takes a different approach. First he notes that the consuming interest in leadership and improving leadership has spawned a plethora of books, blogs, TED talks, and commentary. Unfortunately, these materials are often wonderfully disconnected from organizational reality and, as a consequence, useless for sparking improvement. The enormous resources invested in leadership development have produced so few results. Estimates of the amount spent on it range from $14 billion to $50 billion a year in the United States alone.

Pfeffer argues that most thinking on leadership has become a sort of morality tale. There are writers who advocate authenticity, attention to employees’ well-being, telling the truth, building trust, being agreeable, and so forth. A smaller number of empirical researchers, contrarily, report evidence on the positive effects of traits and behaviour such as narcissism, self-promotion, rule breaking, lying, and shrewd manoeuvring on salaries, getting jobs, accelerating career advancement, and projecting an aura of power. Part of this discrepancy—between the prescriptions of the vast leadership industry and the data on what actually produces career success—stems from the oft-unacknowledged tendency to confuse what people believe ought to be true with what actually is.

Second, this moral framing of leadership substantially oversimplifies the real complexity of the dilemmas and choices leaders confront. The reality is that it is sometimes necessary to do bad things to achieve good results. Not surprisingly, then, some of the most successful and admired leaders—for example, Nelson Mandela, Abraham Lincoln, and John F. Kennedy—were above all pragmatists, willing to do what was necessary to achieve important objectives. As such, each of them (and many other renowned leaders) changed their positions on decisions and issues and behaved inconsistently. They dissembled and engaged in strategic misrepresentation, not always disclosing their full agendas and plans, in part to avoid provoking opposition.

Pfeffer contends that the secret of developing leadership is not to focus on traits but instead heed successful leadership lessons. Here is what he suggests:

  • Relentlessly focus on building your power base using flattery when necessary.
  • Embrace moral ambiguity, frequently the end will justify the means. Accept that the world is full of imperfect people and ambiguous choices.
  • Eschew popularity contests. To get along you do not need to go along. Leadership is not about winning popularity contests or being the most beloved person in a social organization. The monomaniacal focus and energy so useful (if not essential) in bringing great ideas to life are not always pleasant for those in close proximity.
  • When the situation demands change—adapt. Great leaders are flexible and if it is required by a situation, and will behave in usefully inauthentic ways.
  • Master the science of influence using Robert Cialdini’s Influence: Science and Practice as a primer.

The people who can do these five things well will have a lot of the GoGetterl/Huster component in their temperament. I would add one item to Pfeffer’s list which is to learn a people profiling system which is temperament based such as the 7MTF/Humm-Wadsworth. Leadership is about people and if you have a practical profiling system you will dramatically improve your leadership potential.


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Chris Golis - Author


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