In Defense of Bosses from Hell

Smart and nice don't always go together. You just have to understand the trade-offs.

By Jeffrey Pfeffer, Business 2.0 Magazine

(Business 2.0 Magazine) -- Most books about leadership read like the Scout manual: CEOs and top managers should be authentic, considerate, sensitive, and modest, as well as creative, smart, and strategically brilliant. All true - but not very useful in the real world, where the person in the corner office might be as approachable as the junkyard dog.

Exhibit A: Steve Jobs.

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APPLE CEO STEVE JOBS: Tyrannical bosses often thrive in hit-driven industries, where creative thinking is at a premium.

Is he the charming, jeans-wearing CEO whose dramatic unveiling of the Apple (Charts) iPhone in January drove the stock up 8 percent by day's end? Or is he, as has been chronicled in several books, the classic jerk boss, notorious for belittling subordinates and business partners?

He's both, of course, and not much different from most executives: blessed with some attributes and cursed with others.

It would be nice if Bobby Knight, the college basketball coach who recently set the all-time record for career victories, didn't have temper tantrums on and off the court, throwing chairs and accosting students. But Knight is also known as a great tactician, a skilled coach, a mentor to other coaches, and a friend to players and former players facing personal difficulties.

Perhaps more important in a sport increasingly dragged down by scandal, Knight is a coach who has consistently graduated his players and has never had trouble with the NCAA.

All the platitudes about ideal management qualities might make people think they know the secret sauce, but I take a contrarian view that those notions actually make matters worse. Since people have been taught to seek perfection in leaders - and mistakenly believe it's possible to find - they tend to get starry-eyed when they meet someone who seems to fit the profile.

The board of Hewlett-Packard (Charts) thought it had found the perfect CEO to shake up the company and beef up its marketing when it hired Carly Fiorina. She did shake things up - but that turned out to have costs, not just benefits, and her "my way or the highway" style eventually caused the board to lose patience.

Here's another point the leadership pundits miss: Situations differ, often wildly, in the extent to which one individual can make a difference and in the set of attributes required to be successful. It's not by accident that lots of difficult, egomaniacal bosses have come from industries like media (Michael Eisner and Anna Wintour), fashion (Mickey Drexler), finance (the late Lew Glucksman of Lehman Bros (Charts).), and technology (Jobs and Oracle (Charts) chief Larry Ellison).

These are all settings in which one great product or revolutionary idea - the sort of thing most likely to come from a single brilliant individual - can often mean the difference between success and failure.

But ironically, most research on leadership, such as Jim Collins's study of Colgate-Palmolive (Charts) CEO Reuben Mark, has focused on industries like manufacturing, hospitality, and transportation, where operational efficiency is crucial and individual brilliance takes a backseat to the importance of building cohesive teams.

It would be wonderful if workplaces were filled with leaders who behaved as polite, mature adults. Despite their track records of success, Apple, Oracle, and big Hollywood studios have lost a lot of talent to nasty behavior. But utopia is impossible, which is why management consultants and authors should stop talking so much about how to find an ideal leader and instead focus on placing people into jobs that play to their strengths - and where their flaws won't be fatal.

Business 2.0 columnist Jeffrey Pfeffer is the Thomas D. Dee II Professor of Organizational Behavior at Stanford University's Graduate School of Business.

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More from Business 2.0's March 2007 issue:

The Next Net 25: Startups to watch

Tech IPOs make a comeback

A startup's best friend? Failure

Web TV's top-rated acts Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.