This week I was struck by a piece in the FT arguing that “nasty leaders can be successful – if they don’t cross the line.’ The piece described some bullies who had seemingly produced excellent results, and who were not as unpopular as their behaviour might suggest. The article was careful not to suggest bullying as a strategy, of course, but the subtext is clear. If you get results, you can usually ‘get away’ with bad behaviour.
And we know this to be true, because we see it every day in our organisations, both public and private, and in politics as much as in the professions. But before you nod sadly and move swiftly on, please stop for a moment. You are being had. This is classic ‘end justifies the means’ morality, and we are so used to it as the prevailing ethical narrative that it seems irrefutable and unremarkable.
But every time you accept it, the narrative grows stronger. So please don’t. Please keep fighting. Because this is about your very soul. You don’t have to do ‘bad cop’ to get results. Generally these guys have problems with their emotional intelligence, and they lose their temper a lot. Often they have a strong ego that brooks no opposition. They hate criticism and they take down naysayers. They drive themselves hard and despise weakness in others.
And, yes, they may have charm and vision and ideas and power. But so do thousands of other leaders. And they don’t feel the need to subdue others in order to prevail. It’s not a competition, with winners and losers. It is about the sustained effort of building excellence around you, so that your organisation can produce brilliant results over the long term as well as for this particular quarter.
And you can of course try to do this by cracking the whip. The evidence suggests that this sometime correlates with good results. But at what cost? Your legacy is broken people, who perpetuate this model, and break others. Instead, you could use your position as a leader not only to get results, but also to school those around you in the art of following well, so that when they take over from you a new story starts. Of leaders who achieve even more extraordinary results, not through nastiness, but though genuine virtue and excellence.
It is simply lazy to be a bad guy. It requires huge effort to remain generous when the pressure mounts. But it is easy to learn how to do this, if you really want to. And my book Leadersmithing is designed to show you the way.