Why Great Leaders Behave Badly

Some bosses are ruthlessly critical, abusive and cruel. For all I know, some of them may be borderline psychotic. And yet, those same individuals can be visionaries who motivate and inspire employees to achieve the impossible. For that, they’re heralded as great leaders. Great leaders that behave badly.

That is the quintessential leadership dilemma. And how many times have we heard about it? Every year or two there’s new academic research into the same old nonsense. Every time, the same names come up: Vince Lombardi, Bobby Knight, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs. And every time, it’s the same tired conundrum spun a different way.

Years ago, Bob Sutton wrote the bestseller The No A—hole Rule. While I have been critical of its populist premise, I also have to admit to being in awe of how the Stanford Professor somehow managed to provoke the whining masses without actually coming up with any real solution to the conundrum.

Today, it’s a book called Understanding the High Performance Workplace: The Line Between Motivation and Abuse. This compilation from 15 different research teams takes a far more nuanced view on the dilemma, but if you’re looking for definitive answers, forget it. The book raises more questions than it answers.

For example, one chapter on the muddled line between motivation and abuse concludes that “abuse” is in the eye of the beholder. How we judge leaders depends on lots of situational factors, most notably whether they’re successful at pushing employees to new heights and achieving great results.

By placing the burden of perception on employees, directors, and other stakeholders, the researchers hit the nail a lot closer to the head than Sutton did. Still, the conclusion ends up sounding suspiciously like “the ends justify the means,” which, of course, represents an even older dilemma with its own ethical issues.

Last year, Jeffrey Pfeffer – another Stanford prof who has partnered with Sutton on a book or two in the past – published Leadership BS, where he decries the massive failure of what he calls “the leadership enterprise.” After gazillions of books, blogs and talks, he says, leadership gurus haven’t helped disengaged employees or leaders’ careers.

For what it’s worth, I agree with Pfeffer. But you have to admire the way he somehow manages to position himself as an outsider, judging a movement that he, Sutton, Bill George and others played a distinct role in creating. You can’t beat the irony … or the duplicity.

Here’s the thing about leadership. It defies academic research because it’s not black and white. Even describing it as shades of gray doesn’t do it justice. It’s infinitely more complex than that. As a function of individuals, perception, situation and time, leaders defy categorization.

For example, Jobs invited Walter Isaacson into the fold to interview hundreds of people and write the only authorized, definitive book on his life and work. And yet, the iconic CEO’s closest lieutenants – Tim Cook and Jony Ive – have essentially denounced the book, saying it doesn’t describe the Steve they knew.

They couldn’t have disagreed more on what kind of leader Jobs was.

You can chalk that up to a couple of Kool-Aid drinking disciples – forever captivated by Jobs’ famed reality distortion field or protecting the legacy of their company’s and friend’s precious brand – but then, you’d be missing the most important clue to solving the leadership dilemma.

Since humans perceive reality through their own tinted lenses, leadership is, by definition, a perception game. It is in the eye of the beholder. It is situational. Not only that, but leaders are people too, and as such, they grow and mature. They change minute by minute, day by day and sometimes dramatically due to traumatic events.

And in the business world, the ends do often justify the means, whether we like it or not. Boards will usually find ways to keep high-performing chief executives around, then oust them when their dysfunctional behavior proves toxic to the organization. The fact that Jobs’ career seesawed from brilliant, to toxic and back again proves the point.

I once worked for a guy who had to be the most abrasive and abusive executive to adorn the corner office, but he co-founded a great company that achieved great things. When the competition got tough, the CEO made some spectacular strategic blunders and was ousted by the board. The company was later acquired for $650 million.

Here’s the thing. Many were loyal to that CEO. They were motivated and inspired by him. Many despised him. Many felt both ways. Jerk that he was, he built a great company that meant a lot to countless employees, shareholders and customers. It didn’t last forever, but c’est la vie. There is no leadership dilemma. Just reality.