Leadership. Humanity. Either – Or?


In the New York Times, July 18 article about George Steinbrenner, the writer posits that leadership is something of a combination of patience and persuasion, not intimidation. “Soft skills”, as they are called, are not natural to most people. Brashness, entitlement and ego, the article goes on to say, are essential components for any competent leader. Limits on the over-the-top boss syndrome don’t preclude the need people have to be told what to do.  Right or not, not hesitating even a little has been the predominant posture in most companies where I’ve worked.

The Society for Personality and Social Psychology findings are that “participants choosing a leader gravitated toward those who made quick decisions in moral dilemmas.”  The Study states that leaders who come from their gut to make tough decisions are thought of as “more morally assured”.

I remember during my television production career sitting in a meeting of minimum 10 people where creative work and decisions about how to execute that work were discussed. In most of those client meetings, the “big guy” would nod his head and the underlings would mimic his decision. Yet, when Procter & Gamble would come in for a creative briefing or production meeting, the leader would always ask the least senior person in the room what he or she thought first, then ask that person to justify his/her decision. Those comments were then either agreed to or refuted by the boss. No one could “go along to get along”. Opinions were fostered and guided not commanded and future thinkers were created. Up-and-comers were not merely imitating, or worse yet, surviving the ordeal.

The Bully As Boss is so last year. Public displays of anger as a way to motivate and inspire people is a thing of the past. When Mr. Steinbrenner was at his most intimidating, the team suffered the most. I worked for a guy who loved to fight. It was his way of challenging people – or so he thought – to be their best. It gave him a reason to enjoy his working life more by putting a little spice into his relationships with colleagues and employees. My personal style is different and I had a hard time with it.  Eventually it led to my leaving the company altogether. I noticed, in fact, that most of the people who left felt bullied and unappreciated. So it seems, this boss’s methodology backfired much like Steinbrenner’s.

Humility seems to run counter to leadership in the minds of most people when asked the question in a survey setting.  Yet, in practice, the concept of humility is growing in popularity. In a Season 3 episode of Mad Men, Roger Sterling tells Don Draper that he doesn’t have a successful relationship because he doesn’t value them. Don seems to be a sociopath anyway, but the point is taken. Don is, as Writer / Director, Matthew Weiner, describes, a totally displaced person. Someone who is too busy surviving his own life to truly care about anyone else. All of us have known people who bounce when times are tough, and Don Draper’s gift is that he bounces better than anyone. He’s not a stranger to me at all. I’ve known more men and women like him in business than humanitarians, that’s for sure. When the end of the episode came, I couldn’t help wondering if all leaders in all industries, not just advertising, have ice water running through their veins.  Is there room in the business world for real caring and generosity, much less for actual humility?

The times they are definitely a-changin’.  Along with anti- harassment and the 90th Anniversary Women’s Suffrage, are the popularity of the soft skills previously attributed to only women.  Next time you’re at Barnes & Noble or cruising through Amazon, pick up a copy of Tom Peter’s book, The Little Big Things, and you’ll see from the intro throughout words like “thank you, apology, appreciation and listen”. These, he says, are skills to master as much as any taught a Stanford MBA. Corny? Well, not if you figure all the big sellers in the business book section are touting integrity, commitment and accountability.

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