In Real Leaders Don’t Follow, author Steve Tobak explains how real entrepreneurs can start, build, and run successful companies in highly competitive global markets. He provides unique insights from an insider perspective to help you make better-informed business and leadership decisions. In this edited excerpt, Tobak offers his insights into the myths behind four popular styles of leadership and why not one of them is true.
Some of the most commonly held beliefs about leaders are complete myths. But their remarkable popularity and persistence have a decidedly toxic effect on many of our careers and companies. It’s long past time we shred those misconceptions.
The Myth of the Extroverted Leader
Charismatic leaders clearly possess a powerful ability to attract followers. But if that were a requirement for running a successful company, not only would Bill Gates and Warren Buffett be out of luck, so would Apple’s Tim Cook, Google’s Larry Page, Charles Schwab, Colgate-Palmolive’s Ian Cook, Campbell Soup’s Doug Conant, and countless other current and former chief executives. The trait they share: They’re all introverts.
Many of the most effective executives and business leaders I’ve worked with over the years were introverts. One well-known high-tech CEO once told me he was so painfully shy as a youth that he lived in terror on a daily basis at the very thought of speaking in class. How did he succeed? By having the courage to face his fear, challenge himself, and venture out of his comfort zone every day. He’s still doing it, even though he could have retired a wealthy man long ago.
While there are definitely extroverts and visionaries at the helm of some successful companies, successful business leaders are mostly just passionate, driven, and talented entrepreneurs bringing new ways of doing things to industries that could use some shaking up.
The Myth of the Visionary Leader
While every chief executive should have some sort of vision for their company, that doesn’t necessarily mean they must be a visionary. The two are not the same. And I would argue the term visionary has not only become overused but also overrated, especially as a quality of leadership or entrepreneurship.
The thing is, the only difference between a visionary and a lunatic is that the visionary turned out to be right. And far too often we’ve seen self-proclaimed visionaries with overblown egos take their companies and their stakeholders on wild rides that never made a bit of sense to begin with. That dynamic was behind pretty much every doomed megamerger, including AOL-Time Warner, Sprint-Nextel, and Alcatel-Lucent, to name a few. It was probably behind Hewlett Packard’s choice of Carly Fiorina as its rock star CEO and her ill-fated acquisition of Compaq Computer.
When Yahoo! was desperately searching for a way to reignite its growth, it promoted one of its cofounders, Jerry Yang, to chief executive. The thought was that Yahoo! needed a new vision, and Yang was just the guy to come up with one. He didn’t. Not only was his short-lived tenure as CEO a disaster, the company has continued its slide into obscurity ever since.
One of the biggest problems with visionaries is that they can become blinded by their own ideas and ideals. They often become myopic, lose their objectivity and common sense, and make unnecessarily high-risk bets. In other words, their egos write checks that reality can’t cash.
More practical leaders don’t put their visions up on pedestals. Rather, they stay grounded in reality, and that allows them to be flexible and adapt to the challenges ahead.
The Myth of The Leader Who Believes That When It Comes to Communication, More Is Best
A few years ago, Google co-founder Larry Page was diagnosed with a rare and chronic nerve problem. As a result, he can only talk softly and hoarsely and must limit his public speaking. In a rare Google+ post, Page discussed the condition but added, “Sergey says I’m probably a better CEO because I choose my words more carefully.”
While Brin was probably only half serious, there’s something to be said for his comment. The popular trend that has executives and business leaders thinking they should communicate more and more — to employees, to the media, on social media, in all sorts of public forums — is way overblown, counterproductive, and in many cases actually destructive for their companies and their careers.
Case in point: In 2014, nearly five years after founding advertising tech company RadiumOne, Gurbaksh Chahal found himself at the center of a social media firestorm after he pleaded guilty to one count of misdemeanor battery and one of domestic violence battery against his then-girlfriend. But instead of managing this self-inflicted crisis as he should — admitting he screwed up, apologizing, and letting things settle down — the 31-year-old made a bad situation much worse by writing long, rambling blog posts defending himself and promoting them to his many followers on social media.
The media of course had a field day, and since Chahal continued to fuel the fire instead of letting it drop, the board eventually had no choice but to fire him. Had Chahal handled the mess he created like a mature adult instead of indulging his overinflated ego, there’s a chance he might still be running the company.
The point is simple: Communication is but one aspect of running and growing a business. Don’t make it into more than it is. Instead of all-hands meetings and companywide memos, create a culture where communication occurs in more natural and organic ways. Walk around. Communicate openly and frequently with your staff. Encourage them to do the same. Sure, there are times when you have to speak to everyone, but those should be rare. The same goes for social media, blogging, or any other one-to-many communication channel. When it comes to communication, as with so many things in business, less is usually more.
The Myth of the Leader Who Can Fake It ’Til They Make It”
There once was a big technology company with a long and storied history that, through no fault of its own, found itself in need of a CEO in relatively short order. The board conducted a search process and, after a few months, announced the choice of a relatively inexperienced executive from a much smaller company.
My reaction at the time was one of surprise. But when I later met this first-time CEO, I understood what had happened. Whether it was in his office or onstage in front of thousands of people, the man dominated the room. He had a powerful vision for the company and an enormous ego that was bigger than life. On the outside, he was a rock star. But his performance turned out to be far more sizzle than substance.
I’m reminded of that every time I see another company’s logo where the former company’s distinctive mark used to be, and it brings to mind a phrase that’s become quite popular in entrepreneurial circles: Fake it ’til you make it.
It’s one thing to promote your potential to reach for new heights, but your self-image should always be grounded in reality. Completely ignoring your limitations and weaknesses is a very bad idea, especially for those in leadership positions.
If you really are faking it to try to boost your confidence when, in reality, you don’t have the talent, capability, and experience to back it up, it probably won’t end well. On some level, you know the truth, and that creates anxiety that will hurt your performance. In all likelihood, you’ll make mistakes that will erode your confidence, and that’s not the outcome you’re looking for.
The only way to boost confidence and create positive outcomes is to be well prepared, take reasonable risks, make smart decisions, and learn through experience what works and what doesn’t. If you’re completely honest with yourself about how things turn out, you’ll gain confidence from your successes and wisdom from your failures. Self-awareness through experience is the key to confidence. Nothing else works.
To be clear, leadership presence, communication, and vision represent potential, not actual management or leadership ability. In my experience, one is in no way predictive of the other. It takes a lot more to effectively run a company than looking and acting the part.