Everyone is bemoaning bad bosses these days—the subject of a wave of recent books (including the elegantly titled My Boss is a Sh*thead), not to mention movies and TV shows.
Within the wide spectrum of bad boss behaviors two characteristics are frequently reported: "abrasiveness" and "arrogance." Of course these descriptions are subject to interpretation, so you could argue that they exist in the mind of the beholder. But when nearly all beholders agree that a given leader is abrasive and arrogant, that’s not a good thing, right?
But wait! Maybe it is—at least according to a Boston Globe op-ed columnist, who defended the brusque and bullying management style of economist Lawrence Summers. (Summers, the controversial former President of Harvard U., was originally on President Obama’s short list of candidates for the all-important Chairmanship of the Federal Reserve System but took his name off the list following a hailstorm of criticism about his blunt management style.)
The columnist, Jennifer Graham, conceded Summers was arrogant, but brushed it aside, quoting Ayn Rand to make the jaw-dropping claim that all that mattered was “clear, hard, radiant competence.” (Glad we straightened that out.)
But of course I had to respond. My issue wasn’t Larry Summers per se, but whether we should tolerate contumely and gracelessness in our leaders. I sent the following letter to the Globe:
Jennifer Graham’s op-ed column on 9/23/13 defending Larry Summers’ “blustery” manner was a head scratcher. She seems to be saying that: (1) the only alternative to Summers’ boorishness is back-slapping “glad-handing”; (2) “nicer people” are just “trying to sell something”: and (3) Summers would be demonstrating “inauthenticity” by seeking to temper his “brusque behavior.” Talk about a straw man argument!
Even more astonishing is her assertion that “a certain brusqueness…suggests a person of serious mind and intent.”
Where to begin? Well, as a consultant who has counseled executives for decades in these issues, I applaud businesses that reject leaders who lack the self-control to restrain their impulsive reactions and who lack the imagination to find ways to address colleagues WITHOUT INSULTING THEM. (Is that too high a bar?) The alternate to boorish behavior is not “glad-handing” but respect for others. If leaders lack the discipline—and humility—to curb their outward disdain for people they disagree with, it’s a CHARACTER issue—which needs to be addressed.
I’ve never seen Mr. Summers in action, but if his behavior fits the descriptions above, it should disqualify him for the position of Federal Reserve Chairman—which, like most high profile jobs, requires large measures of tact and diplomacy. In twenty-first-century business, “clear, hard, radiant competence” is wholly insufficient if leaders can’t manage their emotions.
One additional point: since when does Ayn Rand qualify as an expert on leadership?
Jennifer Graham’s entire column can be read here. It’s actually a light and amusing read—and she’s clearly a clever writer whose columns I often enjoy—but there’s an absence of logic here.
Having to cope with abrasive, arrogant, bullying managers and leaders—the classic “bad boss”—is one reason why two million US workers quit their jobs every month, with significant costs to their companies as well as to the economy as a whole. These numbers are only likely to go up once the economy turns around and the job market improves.
This is not to stifle creative abrasion—a term coined by Jerry Hirshberg, the founder of Nissan Design, in his book The Creative Priority. This is the friction of oppositional viewpoints that can produce sparks of creativity. In my work with teams I encourage the harnessing of energy released by this friction, which can produce new ideas and novel solutions. But emotional maturity is required. Such opposition should be expressed professionally and respectively, among a team of equals.
Now what can rock & roll teach us about this? Well, the most successful bands are typically not led by arrogant, abrasive leaders who treat band mates with contempt. (My favorite examples: U2, the Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac, the Dixie Chicks.) Most members of any artistic team do not tolerate an intemperate autocrat—for long anyway. In fact, most bands are not led by one leader, as I write about here.
But looking at the bright side of this, I can’t help but think that the presence of business leaders with the personality ascribed to Larry Summers (“blustery,” “impatient,” “bullying,” “condescending”) will keep me happily employed as a leadership coach for a long time.