As new barriers are broken in business today, I find that I want some of them restored more than ever. Sometimes we mistake new territory for better territory. The last decade has brought us more than our fair share of unusual circumstances and characters who—to put it kindly—have broadened our experience with new leadership styles, and this year is no exception.
Some of us have put it more frankly. Harvard alumnus, philosophy professor, and bestselling author Aaron James says that even though we try to avoid them, jerks are everywhere and in multiple iterations—smug, royal, presidential, corporate, and reckless. These people are part of our human condition, especially during a time of raging narcissism and unbridled capitalism, adds James.
A few leaders who have recently captured headlines make me more confident than ever that there’s still a strong case for promoting consistency in character. Often thought of as the underdog of good leadership, consistency in character is that sleeper leadership skill that often gets overlooked because when you uphold this quality in your workplace, people aren’t likely to notice. But if you’re a leader who’s erratic, the negative outcomes can deliver a wallop. The costliest of these outcomes, of course, is distrust.
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The Wall Street Journal’s Adam Kirsch recently commented on the rise and fall of respectability among leaders. He pointed to Elon Musk’s strange sequence of events with his takeover of Twitter: abrupt and widespread layoffs; ultimatums for workers who remained; firing and rehiring key employees, followed by jokes about it online; and reactivating frozen accounts that were populated with offensive content.
Inconsistent behavior like this drains employees of their well-being and distracts them from performing their best because they have to waste precious mental resources on guessing what a leader might do next and how to react with the most flexibility. Instead, a leader with consistency in character provides reliability in their approach, giving people the confidence to act in alignment with the company’s espoused mission and values over time. “We are what we repeatedly do,” said Aristotle. “Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
If we are what we repeatedly do, it’s no wonder Sam Bankman-Fried was also a centerpiece in Kirsch’s article about leadership gone awry. Apparently, entrepreneur Bankman-Fried convinced Sequoia Capital to invest $200 million during a pitch meeting via Zoom—all the while playing the video game League of Legends. If that isn’t enough to drop your jaw at the irreverence of it all, the equally jarring note is that Sequoia was impressed by Bankman-Fried’s disrespectful manner and shared these details in an article, advertising the investment.
Are we so bored with what makes a good leader that we’re willing to laud misbehavior? Or, worse, characterize it as something special? I recall watching my Denver Broncos play this season and a commentator retelling what a coach had told the offensive line: “Don’t get bored with success.” Sure, the short passes and runs aren’t always memorable, but they get the job done. Have patience, and don’t let yourself lose interest in the short plays that take care of the long game.
In the game of business, these incremental, sometimes unnoticed, small wins are the workhorses of character-driven leadership over time. They are the building blocks of great careers. Perhaps our fascination with the rarity of “overnight successes”—whether on the stage, in the arena, or in the headlines—is why we glorify bold investments and swift takeovers. They feel like the Hail Mary passes of life, a disruption in the normal course of a small-wins game down the field.
But if these new barriers are increasingly broken with erratic leadership behavior and lack of character, a new normal is established—and one that isn’t necessarily conducive to healthy change, much less inspiring trust and managing people. Instead, let’s be inspired by integrity, consistency, and selfless behavior that’s channeled into small and big wins alike. They may be well-covered territory in conversations about leadership but for a good reason: they are qualities that require you to think of others before yourself.
In the main I agree with your comments but I believe that there is an indefinite latitude available to the single focus, driven, demanding and perhaps, genius leader who, through laser focus on the end result, brings incredible businesses to the world. I would include Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Sam Zell, and Elon Musk in that list. Additionally, the father of the modern REIT business, Bill Sanders would be there as well. I wouldn’t say that any of their management styles would fit neatly into the definition of leadership as espoused in the article above but I do believe that without these leaders most of those businesses that they created would have failed or certainly would have been much less than they became. Sometimes hitching a ride on a comet can take you very near to the sun. Many times it works exceptionally well.
Mythologizing can cloud how we see the primary sources of a business’ success, and failures.
Great post, Walt. I hope that more leaders realize the downside of erratic and sometimes toxic behavior. Life is too short to spend time with people like that, much less work for them. Thanks.
Particularly given how much time we spend on work. Thanks, George, for your comment. Glad you found the article helpful
Thank you for your consistency in calling for a higher standard despite the turbulence in the marketplace that is all around us; “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of people, by craftiness in deceitful scheming;” Ephesians 4:14
Thanks for writing in, Patrick. I’m holding steadfast to the principles that matter.