Goodness: The First Stop on the Road to Greatness

leadership flow chart written...
leadership flow chart written...

The older I become, I have come to accept certain things about myself: being aware of my limits and my comfort level with imperfection. These hard-earned traits allow me to celebrate the wiring that brought me to where I am today -- both professionally and personally. I have gotten used to the notion there is no clear line between my professional and personal worlds. To be great in both worlds, I need to be good to those affected by my actions at work and in my personal life.

As I reflect on this mantra, I work on identifying areas of my life where I'm truly awful, among them anything mechanical or engineering related (including household fixes), or my lifelong inability to develop a creative outlet for the art going on in my head and heart. On the other side, I am encouraged by the development of my stronger traits. For instance, I have a natural ability to make and keep friends. I enjoy meeting new people regardless of age, background or culture and I love learning what makes a person tick. I thrive on building lasting connections -- a practice not born out of altruism or parental values but based on a selfish belief that deep and varied connections make life more enjoyable.

I realized recently my focus on "doing well by doing good" is clearly not the widely accepted norm in our culture where "greatness" is based on results rather than the intrinsic value in the process itself. Never has this been more apparent than in our current obsession with Steve Jobs whose biopic opened last week with the advertising tagline asking, "Can a Great Man be Good?" While there is certainly nuance involved in defining subjective terms such as Great and Good, I think the question and the heated discussions around the topic illustrate the seriously misplaced leadership values of our society.

When did integrity, humility and kindness give way to assertiveness, risk taking and winning at all costs as values we admire in our "great" leaders? How is it that a business leader who ignores his children, humiliates colleagues, or habitually takes credit for other people's work could even be considered great? Effective? Maybe. Visionary? Sometimes. But Great? I struggle with that conclusion.

To be fair to the Jobs-heads, the discussion of whether or not nice guys finish last is hardly new. Machiavelli started the discussion in 1513 when he said, "It is better to be feared than loved," and business leaders have been citing Sun Tzu's The Art of War as their personal inspiration since the invention of chief executive officers. What is fairly new is the CEO as celebrity and the almost cult-like way we revere start-up entrepreneurs driving the tech revolution. Maybe it's time to shift the away from consumer-driven values and take a deeper look at the data around leadership as well as the human impact of not-so-great bosses on employee morale and company success.

Studies Reveal the Pros and Cons of Evolutionary-Style Leadership

For most of the last 15 years, study after study has concluded that bad behavior and an inflated sense of self can lead to positions of power and influence. Our society appears to follow a theory of "evolutionary leadership" that rewards aggressive risk takers with leadership status. Two often-quoted examples come from university researchers. One study out of Amsterdam reported in The Atlantic revealed obnoxious people appear viewed as more powerful and a U.S.-based study proved that "nice guys" typically earn less than their more aggressive peers.

Some opposing data is found in Robert Sutton's The No Asshole Rule, a book written to prove bullies poison the workplace and induce qualified employees to quit and are therefore bad for business. Unfortunately, Sutton himself felt compelled to include a chapter on the Virtues of Assholes where he concedes that horrible bosses can be incredibly effective.

When Reality Conflicts With Research

Despite the empirical evidence, my reality suggests most people can separate something truly valuable from the flawed person who created it. I can admire Steve Jobs for his uncanny vision without wanting to emulate his leadership style. What may be needed in this discussion is a more honest look at what drives personal success and how that translates to business acumen. If we're going to hold business leaders up as heroes we need to take a holistic view that marries their workplace personas with the way the manage their personal lives as well.

So, back to making and keeping friends. That personal trait is the foundation of my business success. I deeply care about the lives of colleagues, superiors, direct and indirect reports, and of course business partners. I make a point to show them how meaningful they are to me with old-school manners: writing hand-written notes and cards, giving gifts with personal meaning on my travels, unprovoked discussion of my personal life as a path to open communication, and inviting business partners to visit me and my family in my home. When the interest and the effort is genuine, it leads to moments of "greatness" on a micro-level, with macro implications.

I'll never forget how bringing Dallas Cowboys memorabilia to the Minister of Telecommunications in Togo initiated a lifelong friendship and resulted in tremendous business success for my company throughout West Africa. That success didn't come from the gifts themselves; it came from my desire to get on the phone every Monday to discuss the Cowboys game from the day before. It came from emailing stories on the Cowboys to my friend. It came from my enthusiasm when he wished to discuss the American political landscape. Friendship breeds trust, and trust is about the best currency anyone can have in the business world.

I'm connected with a large group of equally successful executives, politicians, government officials and non-profit leaders that share my belief in the power of strong connections. I can honestly say there's not a single Steve Jobs in the bunch - not because that person wouldn't be welcome, but because my chosen friends and connections don't seem to have interest in "greatness" as the current culture defines it. I think as a society we all should start to look more closely at putting goodness on a pedestal and look to hear more from leaders who succeed by working well with others. Do you believe you have to be aggressive, obnoxious or downright rude to succeed? How do you define a great leader? What is the basis of your success? Drop me a line or leave a comment and let's change the direction of this discussion.