True Leadership is About Being a Nice Guy

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Leadership has always been task oriented. Its effectiveness has been measured by company valuations, quarterly and revenue projections, and other tangible metrics. Who cares if the CEO or managers are autocrats as long as shareholders are happy? Stories about appalling work conditions and dictatorial leaders create outrage for a week. After that, the same leaders are lauded for their suffocating work style which brings quick results. We applaud people who lead from the front, the larger-than-life personalities who have all the answers – at least they assure us that they do.

leadershipBut a contrasting type of leadership has always flown under the radar. It rarely captures the media’s attention. Not because it doesn’t create delightfully controversial stories, but because barely anyone recognizes it. Such leaders are self-effacing individuals who display fierce resolve and determination to make their organization scale new heights. Yet, they never take credit for it. They are individuals whom we typically would call ‘nice guys’.

According to Wikipedia, a nice guy is a teenage or adult who is perceived as gentle, compassionate, sensitive and vulnerable. He puts others’ needs before his own, avoids confrontation and generally acts nicely. We often consider him to be an unassertive person who does not express his true feelings. ‘Nice guys finish last,’ the popular adage goes.

But according to Adam Grant, we are doing nice guys a huge disservice by stereotyping them. In Give and Take, Grant categorizes human beings into three personas: takers, who care about how much they can squeeze out of others; matchers, who help others but expect something in return, and givers, who give way more than they get. As you would expect, genuinely nice guys fall in the last category. But does that indicate that they are exploited often?

Grant further categorizes givers into two types: selfless and otherish. Selfless givers help everyone, often bending over backwards to accommodate others’ needs, eventually suffering in their own work. Otherish givers choose whom to help by asserting the genuineness of those who need it. They focus on helping others, but have equally ambitious (moral) goals set for themselves. The concept of otherish givers can be applied to Level 5 leaders – the leaders who, according to Jim Collins, are the single differentiating factor between great companies and their competitors.

So which attributes of a balanced nice guy reflect in the amazing leaders whom we know little about?

1. Empowering others

Nobody knows all the answers (yes, if you are theistic, He does). Larger-than-life personalities, however, refuse to accept this, often priding themselves in making subordinates follow “their way or the highway.” The result – companies which grow incredibly fast and disintegrate at equal speed.

Effective leaders use the term “I don’t know” as often as we use Kleenex. They surround themselves with brighter minds instead of ‘yes-men’. Rather than telling team members what to do, they encourage them to find answers. This not only empowers employees, but also gives the leaders access to alternate perspectives.

2. Investing credit

In Good to Great, Jim Collins elaborates on the Window and Mirror Framework thus:

Level 5 leaders look out the window to apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well (and if they cannot find a specific person or event to give credit to, they credit good luck). At the same time, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility, never blaming luck when things go poorly…… everyone outside the window points inside, directly at the leader saying, “He was the key; without his guidance and leadership, we would not have become a great company.” And the Level 5 leader points right back out the window and says, “Look at the great people and good fortune that made this possible……”

Takers are the opposite. They rarely, if ever, credit their hardworking team when things go well. And when things go bad, they blame external conditions and portray themselves as victims. CEO Kenneth Lay’s photo consistently filled the front page of Enron’s annual reports, indicating: “I am the central figure of this company.” Despite his charming and philanthropic personality, we know what transpired.

3. Using the right language

Self absorbed leaders are more likely to use pronouns like I, me, mine, my, andmyself. In comparison, selfless leaders use pronouns like we, us, our, ours andourselves.

This use of pronouns reflects the mindset of leaders. Self absorbed leaders believe that they are the best thing since sliced bread. They spend a lot of time having full length articles of themselves written in magazines, rather than sustaining the company. Level 5 leaders, on the other hand, split their time between hard work and personal hobbies, and shy away from the spotlight. No wonder even the most ardent students of management and corporate history know little about Darwin Smith and Paul O’ Neill.

4. Making decisions without emotion

Selfless leaders know that they don’t have all the answers. Like that, they also acknowledge their mistakes quickly. If their decisions turn out to be incorrect or counter productive, they are quick to pivot and put the team in the right direction. They also know how to face brutal facts and make a decision which pays off in the long run. For instance, Darwin Smith, as CEO of Kimberly-Clark, sold the core business which brought in most of the revenue, and ventured into consumer-paper products. The legendary Stu Inman would give players with low ability lesser minutes on court during the NBA, especially if he picked them in the draft.

Self absorbed leaders refuse to see the writing on the wall, and persist till there is nothing left. How many companies have you heard of which shut down because they failed to keep up with the times? I’m sure you can write more examples than me. Do leave a comment.

5. Wanting the best for others

Because selfless leaders draw more happiness out of helping others grow, they are considered nice guys. This isn’t just applicable to business executives. Investors, shift managers or average-Joe employees look for the right people to invest time and effort in, and help them advance. This is how companies (and teams) sustain excellence long after these leaders make way for others.

Self absorbed leaders, on the other hand, don’t mind other dogs in the kennel as long as they are the biggest dog. Rather than enabling employees to think for themselves, such leaders take pride in being tyrants. Stanley Gault, CEO of Rubbermaid, made the company grow from obscurity to number one on Fortune’s annual list of America’s Most Admired Companies. But he was so captivated by himself that he created a shallow management team. Rubbermaid returned to obscurity and got acquired by Newell just as quickly as it rose to fame after he left.

According to Adam Grant, ‘kissing up, kicking down’ is an easy way to identify selfish leaders who appear positive. They charm everyone above them, but treat those below them with disdain. However, in this perceived ‘dog-eat-dog’ world, the assertively nice guys are the most successful, yet they find least mention. In fact, they prefer it so.

Alan Wurtzel, CEO of Circuit Company was asked how he ended up being more successful than the CEO of a competing company. “He was a show horse, while I was a plough horse,” Wurtzel said. As a leader, focus on creating long term value for your stakeholders (not just shareholders). The results are far more gratifying than being heralded in a magazine one day and chastised by the media the next.

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