Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Leaders* (*But were afraid to ask)

I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get a little saturated with all the leadership rhetoric pervading the blogosphere and bookstores these days. All the popular fads and fake promises, the parables and platitudes, the studies and surveys, the dos and don’ts, it’s enough to make your head spin.

Every bit of conventional wisdom gives rise to hundreds of eyeball catching contrarian headlines.

For every academic study there’s a self-proclaimed guru drawing the opposite conclusion. There’s bad science, bad logic, data points used to make massive generalizations, and all sorts of clueless nonsense.

The funniest thing about it is that none of the real leaders, at least in the business world, are talking; they’re much too busy working. Leading. Strategizing. Innovating. Managing. Executing. Running and growing businesses. Satisfying customers, making money for shareholders, employing people. That sort of thing.

What makes me so different? That’s something for you to decide. All I know is, I’ve known and worked with hundreds of executives and business leaders. I’ve also been one. I’ve been involved with all sorts of successes and failures, big and small. You learn a lot about yourself and others from that sort of experience, that’s for sure.

In any case, I’m pretty tired of all the BS. So I’m going to try to dispel some popular myths and shed a little light on what’s clearly become a hot topic. Here are my candid answers to 10 of the most controversial leadership questions of the day.

Are leaders born or made?

We call people “born leaders,” but in reality, leadership skills and abilities are always learned along the way. Companies like Procter & Gamble (NYSE:PG), GE (NYSE:GE), and IBM (NYSE:IBM) have bred hundreds of CEOs. More than anything, experience builds leaders, and not just in adulthood, either. Everything from infancy on plays a role. That said, comedian Ron White says, “You can’t fix stupid.” Indeed.

Are CEOs psychopaths, narcissists, and control freaks?

Some are, most aren’t. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in four adults “suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder.” An argument can definitely be made for the percentage to be a bit higher among leaders. So next time you’re sitting in an executive or board meeting, look around the table. Two or three of your fellow officers would probably be better off with a good shrink than an executive coach.

Are CEOs worth what they make?

Some CEOs, particularly in big corporations, make far more than they should. But that’s not typically the case in the tens of thousands of small-to-midsized companies. Also technology companies tend to do a better job of tying pay to performance. That said, some CEOs are worth every penny while others should be fired and paraded through the streets in shackles, figuratively speaking. There’s a bell curve for CEO pay versus performance, as with all things.

Should you try to be like Steve Jobs?

First came the invasion of the black mock turtlenecks. Then people started mimicking his speaking style. Now everyone is trying to clone his management ideas. Unfortunately, you can’t just “copy and paste” talent, wisdom, or breakthrough leadership. It just doesn’t work that way. If he could, Steve Jobs would tell you the answer is “No.”

Should leaders help make this a better planet?

Whole Foods (NYSE:WFM) CEO John Mackey says business leaders can have a higher purpose than just making money. He calls it conscious capitalism. Should others get on the bandwagon? Absolutely. But if it’s just going to be some fluffy lip service for the PR benefit, it’ll do more harm than good when folks find out you’re a fraud. Whatever the cause, it should align with your business objectives. Shareholder value, customer satisfaction, employee satisfaction, revenue growth, profits, and beating the pants off the competition are still the metrics that count.

What’s more effective, command and control or soft skills?

It depends on your leadership style and the needs of the organization. Obviously, you’re better off if you can get people to do your bidding without having to hit them over the head with a heavy club. A little empathy goes a long way. And you can be highly motivated to fight and win without being an abusive jerk. Most leaders can walk and chew gum at the same time. That said, some very successful leaders – like Jobs and Bill Gates, for example – couldn’t pull it off. C’est la vie. It takes all kinds.

Are all leaders power hungry?

No. The vast majority don’t set out to become leaders or executives. They don’t seek power. They’re mostly passionate about accomplishing things; winning; their products or technology; or their functional expertise.

Does self help, personal productivity, or time management help you get there?

No, no, and no. It also doesn’t matter if your office looks like it was hit by a tornado, you’re always losing your car keys, and you’re not a morning person who gets 43 things done before breakfast. Do whatever works for you. Stick to your DNA. Don’t try to be what you’re not.

Should you try to be an entrepreneur?

If you’re really passionate about something or there’s something you think would be cool to do, then you should do it. When that doesn’t work, find something else and do that. Keep going until you’re happy or successful or, with any luck, both. If none of that happens, get a real job. Don’t try to be an entrepreneur for the sake of being an entrepreneur. Mark Zuckerberg did Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) because he wanted to rate the looks of Harvard classmates, not to start a company or become an entrepreneur.

Are all leaders visionary risk takers who push the limits?

No. There are two kinds of leaders: visionaries who push the limits and know no boundaries and those with more balance, maturity, and usually, longevity. The world needs both types. Oftentimes they partner together famously.

One more thing. Leaders are first and foremost human beings. Bell curves apply to all things related to people. Most of what you read relates to the extremes. I’m really not sure how beneficial any of that is, to tell you the truth. Try to use a little common sense and, if that doesn’t work, psychology usually does the trick.