Leadership, Likeability and Life

A recent book concludes that people like to work with likeable people, even if the nice people don't know very much. Is business technology management and leadership exempt from this phenomenon?
Ideas are like viruses – they multiply no matter how hard we try to stop them. For decades I’ve wondered why there are so many books on management and leadership. I just searched Amazon.com and found no less than 16,380 offerings. I then Googled “Leadership Books” and turned up 30,800,000 hits.

How can there be so much wisdom on one subject? Does “leadership” change completely every week or so? That might account for all of the “new” thinking about management and leadership.

Or we just have no idea what leadership is, how to develop it or how to evaluate it. This might explain why we keep asking the same old questions about leadership, management and people. The most recent profundity is that people like to work with likeable people even if the nice people don’t know very much or produce anything of much value. Isn’t this insight what explains how politicians get elected? How movie stars become movie stars? How celebrity CEOs become CEOs?

The recent book – The Likeability Factor – by Tim Sanders and the June 2005 article in the Harvard Business Review – “Competent Jerks & Lovable Fools” – by Tiziana Casciaro and Miguel Sousa Lobo, both suggest some really amazing, counter-intuitive things: People like to work with people they like! Even likeable stupid people like to work with likeable stupid people. Likeable smart people also like to work with other likable smart people. Everybody likes to work with likeable people – even incompetent likeable people. This explains why some likeable politicians can’t lead, why some popular actors can’t act and why most celebrity CEOs don’t succeed.

I don’t know about you, but this groundbreaking research has thrown me for a loop. Likeable people succeed? Jerks fail? Wow ... I have to sit down to absorb the power of this discovery.

I bring all this up because business technology management and leadership is not exempt from the likeable phenomenon. After reading the two above treatises, I sat back and thought about the business technology managers and leaders I’ve known over the years. How many, I asked myself, were likeable? How many were competent? How many were “lovable fools”? How many were really stupid, nasty and incompetent?

I’m matrix crazy, so I developed the following picture for us to ponder:

I then located the business technology managers and leaders that I’ve worked with over the years. What do you think I discovered? Well, humbly, I discovered that the likeability scholars are right: Most of the managers and leaders I’ve known over the years were more green than red. I discovered that most of the green people were closer to nice and stupid than they were to nice and smart. Stupid? OK, that’s probably an exaggeration, but I have to say that I’ve not been overwhelmed by the rocket science of most technology leaders over the years (technology managers are usually smarter). Leadership – fueled by intelligence, dedication and passion – is actually pretty rare.

I can easily identify lots of technology professionals who were nicer than they were smart. They also seemed to have the knack of being extra nice to the people who promoted them (and to the people that could promote them again). I’ve also worked with professionals with less than “likeable” personalities. Some of these people were bona fide jerks, but some of the jerks were absolutely brilliant and capable of making extraordinary contributions to their organizations and companies, but, because of their personalities, were dismissed as “difficult,” “obnoxious,” or just -- well -- unlikeable. Many times in my career I counseled such people with the advice: “you are absolutely right ... and if you persist, you will be absolutely dead right.”

All of this might also explain why there are so many consultants. Turns out we need to backfill our staffs with people who are smart, nice, and sometimes nasty (there are no stupid consultants, right?).

But much more importantly, there’s a way to optimize all this. Here’s what I think you should do:

  • Get rid of the stupid nasty people: they serve no purpose ...

  • Find, retain and reward as smart, nice people – as many as you can ...

  • Restrict the nice, stupid people to roles that exploit their talents, perhaps as communicators, facilitators, etc., though some pruning here is also necessary (how many glad-handers do you really need?) ...

  • Work to exploit the contributions that smart – but sometimes nasty – people can make to your projects, programs and strategies ... really smart people are very hard to find.

    I think these four steps equal some form of “leadership.” Is there another book here?

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