The Myth of the Larger-Than-Life Leader

9 Oct

The reverence of Steve Jobs and the narrative of how he founded then resurrected Apple, turning it into one of the most influential companies in the world, is, by now, one of the most famous corporate success stories in our culture. On par with the mythology of Henry Ford and various robber barons, Jobs exemplifies our fascination with the cult of personality, particularly in the business world. Indeed, Jobs was a remarkable businessman. But note that remarkable means not only “worthy of attention” but also “extraordinary, unusual.”

The problem is that in the context of our business culture all too often the focus is on the former definition and not the latter. Of the top 20 Fortune 500 companies today, only one CEO—Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett—is likely to be a household name. The other companies have arguably achieved their prominence not through the sheer genius of one person but through the collective work and vision of many. And yet corporate boards continue to covet and overvalue “rock star” CEOs, and this mistaken attitude often trickles down through organizational cultures.

The reality, as many professionals who tend to fall more on the quiet end of the spectrum can attest to, is that many of the best workers—be they at the top of the pyramid or somewhere in the middle—go about their business, achieving great results without fanfare. And while it may feel as though the whole world is beguiled by those who make the most noise in conference rooms and boardrooms, it’s encouraging and, critically, worth noting that that’s not actually the case.

In my book Invisibles, I profiled a number of highly accomplished professionals who remain largely behind the scenes. Many of these people lead large teams of workers and have positions of great authority within their fields or organizations. And yet almost all of them are understated and self-effacing—certainly not traits typically associated with leadership.

Robert Elswit, an Academy Award-winning cinematographer, has an enormous personal influence on the look and feel of the multimillion dollar films he shoots (such as an installment in the “Mission Impossible” franchise and nearly every film by Paul Thomas Anderson, including the Oscar winner “There Will Be Blood”). Of that forever long list of names you see scrolling at the end of a film, a large percent ultimately fall under his charge—the grips, gaffers, and such. Yet, when I witnessed Elswit on set, and from talking with others on the crew, it’s clear he oversees all of these professionals with a velvet glove. He treats them all with respect; he never yells. And while he does recognize he’s their boss, he views himself as not above the production, but as a member of the team, only interested in achieving the best final result, not calling attention to himself personally. As he told me: “I love the idea of trying to—within the limitations of my job—figure out the best version of whatever it is that we are doing together, with all these people.” Elswit then went on to praise the importance and skill of all those craftspeople under his charge involved in making a film. This is someone who is paid very handsomely for his work and who is at the top of an industry not known for understatement and small personalities. Yet, his attitude clearly is one of understanding the collectivist nature needed to produce great films.

In his book, Dead Companies Walking, published at the beginning of 2015, Scott Fearon, a highly regarded yet—not surprisingly—somewhat under the radar hedge fund manager, noted that he often red-flags companies led by overly flashy executives or those who aim to stand apart from their teams or organizations. On more than one occasion, he took this as a sign that a company wasn’t healthy. He subsequently profited handsomely by shorting their stocks. Further, Fearon talked about the fact that the best money managers are often quieter and less aggressive than the “Type As” so many of the big financial firms seek out.

Robert Elswit’s approach is not an anomaly. Indeed, as the famous business scholar and author Jim Collins has written, “Level 5 Leaders” run great companies and teams “through a paradoxical combination of personal humility plus professional will.” It’s this personal humility that so often gets overlooked as a critical trait for great leaders. While there are plenty of extroverts who are also self-effacing, more commonly we are told to associate leadership with a big, blustery personality of someone who leads with a capital L. In reality, however, many of our best leaders view themselves as part of a team and are master collaborators. And it’s this very attitude that not only serves them well in their positions but also helped them advance there.


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