We want them to continue to be trailblazers. We don’t want them to burn everything to the ground.
Your boss is a genius – but drives you up the wall with all manner of shenanigans. Yes, you look up to him – but at times need to look away to facepalm yourself like someone trying to smack the last bit of sauce out of a bottle.
Imaginative leaders are catalysts for disruption – not necessarily a bad thing, but not necessarily something you’d want. You have probably heard of ‘the duality of man’ – that within all of us is the potential for good and evil. When we apply this concept to visionaries and leaders who wield great power, that potential is suddenly magnified. That’s why we love and hate them at the same time. We want them to continue to be trailblazers. We don’t want them to burn everything to the ground.
That is the case presented by authors Marc Epstein and Rob Shelton in their new book The Brilliant Jerk Conundrum: Thriving with and Governing A Dominant Visionary.
What’s so bad about them?
Strong, dominant and visionary leaders have a goal. Unlike mere mortals, their goals are not merely to learn how to cook the perfect plate of scrambled eggs or to nail that pesky D minor chord on the guitar. Visionary leaders have goals that change the world as we know it. Common side effects of said goal involve challenging conventional wisdom and changing the way things are done. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it?
Only imagine if that conventional wisdom was a code of ethics. Should a leader’s dishonesty ever be justified by the results? I sincerely hope your answer is no. However, some leaders do not agree with this. Just ask Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos.
Suppose that conventional wisdom is not a list of moral values, but a person. Suppose it is you and everyone else in the company that the leader unapologetically challenges and dismisses, all in the name of their great vision. There are certainly leaders like that, and for those who continue to work for them, there’s probably a dartboard with the boss’s face somewhere at home.
His nostrils are the bullseye.
The authors dedicate an entire chapter to examining case studies with familiar names. It would unfair of me to list out all their hard work here, but there was certainly enough qualitative evidence presented to convince me that there were patterns.
Why do we tolerate strong leaders?
Quite simply, say the authors, because we need them. They are the Steve Jobs’ and Jeff Bezos’ of the world. They create an aura of ‘executive omniscience’ – of larger than life, corporate rock stars. This aura is not unearned, as they truly do bring about change like no other. However, problems can arise when this perceived omniscience is taken for granted. Such leaders have a tendency to believe they can do no wrong. When others believe this too, that’s when a CEO can go from brilliant to brilliant jerk.
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Marc and Rob identify three factors that can lead to this scenario:
- Asymmetrical power – where a strong leader has a lopsided amount of decision-making power compared to everyone else. Think of family run companies where the other board members are just there for the ride.
- A cult of personality – where a strong leader is so charismatic he/she is able to win over employees and board members and dissenting voices are dismissed or leave out of frustration.
- Lack of transparency – where a strong leader is able to withhold key performance indicators from other stakeholders, and only the leader has a clear overview of the situation.
The authors caution against allowing too much leeway. Of course, there are leaders who are guilty of some of these and still run their companies successfully. But that should never be the norm. Allowing all three to occur is like going all-in during a poker match. You are betting everything on your CEO being correct and truthful all the time.
Does that mean we’re at the mercy of these brilliant wildcards? Not quite, say the authors.
A separation and management of powers
Remember the asymmetrical power mentioned earlier? In a non-family run company, this should never be allowed to happen. The board should always collectively be able to have the final say, otherwise why have a board at all?
Therefore, careful attention needs to be paid to who is chosen to sit on the board. Marc and Rob go into detail with theories and benchmarks of how this should be done properly. Board members should be prepared to intervene. If things look like they’re going south, do not be afraid to step up and challenge the CEO’s plans. Of course, this is easier said than done. It takes courage to do this. This brings us back to the selection process for board members. Choose wisely.
The board should also know their maverick CEO well – his/her tendency to break rules, to violate ethics, to be jerks to others, etc. A solid profile of a leader allows the board to predict and diagnose problems preemptively instead of waking up one day to find their company name splattered across the newspapers.
Leaders lead. Boards manage. Together, everyone decides. That’s how it should always be. In the event the CEO is given free reign, it should be by consent of the board, and that consent should be granted only with full dissemination of information to everyone.
But I don’t deal with a brilliant jerk CEO
Neither do I. However, I didn’t read all 166 of those pages to not have any takeaways for my daily life. A brilliant jerk can come in the form of a parent, friend, colleague, manager, or romantic partner (my sincere condolences). The board can consist of family members, co-workers, other friends, or even just yourself as a one-man army. The aforementioned advice from the authors still applies, albeit with a more personal approach.
I may even find that there are moments in life where I am that brilliant jerk. Well, not so much the brilliant part, but I can certainly recall moments when I was an absolute jerk. Not to toot my own horn, but there are areas that I believe I am skilled at. We all have areas of expertise, after all, and some of us can be quite stubborn about only doing certain things our own way. It can be my responsibility, then, to be my own board, so to speak. To be reflective and receptive of feedback.
Or maybe the real lesson is that we should all become extremely brilliant at something so people will have to tolerate us being jerks, as long as one is a brilliant jerk.
Nah, probably not.
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