Why We Need Difficult Leaders

Like so many others in our field, I devoured the Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs the moment it hit the shelves. I was struck by just how far Jobs was from our current managerial ideal, being as he was notoriously difficult and exacting in his vision.

Many thousands of hours of managerial training have been developed and delivered extolling the virtues of participative and soft side management, individual dignity entitlement and releasing performance through collaboration. Yet here we are, faced with an incredibly gifted and hard-edged individual who has had enormous impact, and who would have not made it through 15 minutes of the training just described.

So which leadership style — supportive or demanding, stable or mercurial — is the right one?

The answer: it depends on whether or not the path is charted.

The analogy here is this: do you need a tour guide or an expedition leader? The operational leader is a tour guide — he uses the same paths, tools and research to take the team along a well-charted path. The supportive, collaborative tools have their place, and allow solid outcomes when the growth path is linear. A skillful operational leader provides stability and brilliance in execution on a defined field of play. When you hear words like SWOT, optimization, segmentation, and product line management you are in the zone of the skillful, stable leader.

When the terrain is completely new, however, and there is not a lot of precedent, then the situation demands more intensity and clarity of vision. An expedition leader has the end firmly in mind, but can take many paths – and deal with tremendous adversity in getting there. The skillful mercurial leader draws his team along with vision and drives them with high expectation and immediate feedback: he is taking us to a place that only he can see clearly, and it is so compelling that we must go along. Consensus does us no favors on such a journey, we must come under the vision of the leader, learn it, expand it, and be changed by it.

Quadrant 4 Leadership

In my ebook, The Growth Zone, I talk about the four quadrants for potential growth. I call the area of breakthrough innovation — the one where you both develop a new product and new customer segment — Quadrant 4. This is the territory of the expedition leader.

Steve Jobs routinely sought out growth in Quadrant 4. For example, he completely restructured the way music was purchased and consumed with iTunes and brought both a new product and customer base into the portfolio. His intuition, persistence and the iron will to wait until the pain of piracy was met by the promise of secure technology revolutionized the music industry.

Over my career, I have been on – and led teams in – an organization that has built several new industries. Just about every one of the breakthroughs was led by someone who had an intensity that made them hard to get along with sometimes, but this was offset by their white-hot clarity and ability to drive their point of view. I immediately recognized in the Jobs biography those traits among those who take business and technology to new places — the expedition leader or Quadrant 4 leaders.

Qualities of a Quadrant 4 Leader

  • Brutal honesty – does not hesitate to say exactly what they are thinking, and willing to “break some glass” if it’s the fastest path to getting to the truth.
  • Polarity – not allowing any middle ground, things are either very good or very bad.
  • Duality of view – able to hold and articulate the big picture and drill down to very intimate detail – and jump back up at will.
  • Unstoppable – once locked on a course of action, unable to allow anything to get in the way.
  • Enormous expectations – sets high personal and organizational objectives, and will not back down.
  • Inspirational – able to craft a future vision that is so compelling, you just have to go there. Also able to redirect your concerns back into their vision, and create a “force field.”
  • Decisive – roots all ambiguity out of the organization, comes at problems directly and unflinchingly.

Developing the Quadrant 4 Leaders

It is important to identify emerging Quadrant 4 leaders and cultivate them – and ensure they know it’s OK to be a Quadrant 4 leader when the situation calls for it.  The above list makes a nice tool for coaching and performance review discussions.

One place you won’t find them is in the core MBA curriculum, as they are difficult to teach and their leadership qualities can mistakenly be seen as anti-team.

A few things to keep in mind:

  • Don’t mistake strong opinions for vision. Review your key programs and make sure you have the right leaders in place. If it’s a push into Quadrant 4 (new product + new customer) and it’s not being led by a person with the attributes I listed above, you will have trouble on your hands.
  • Challenge emerging visionaries. These white-hot leaders display their skills early in their careers. One of my favorite HR directors used to say, “look for momentum and direction, and find where it came from.” It may not be the org chart leader, but it is still a true leader. It is important to find these individuals quickly and challenge them with projects that will hone their skills.
  • Tweak the usual career path. If you are lucky enough to have people that are resilient enough to change the world because the world will not change them, put them into a position where that gift can be built on and employed. Left to a standard corporate development track, these people will be weeded out.
  • When the project goes into operation, switch up the leadership.  Business history is littered with breakthrough projects that have been extremely successful in the early years, only to be driven into decline by holding on to the successful strategy beyond its apex. Harvard professor Clayton Christensen has documented this as the “innovator’s dilemma.” How do you know when to switch up leaders? When the signs of category maturity start to show up:  industry analysts, competitors with similar offerings, profit margins under pressure, and most importantly, when what you are providing routinely exceeds what the customer really needs.

It can be thrilling and terrifying to hand the reins to someone with an uncompromising vision. It feels like a terrific gamble, but it can pay huge rewards.

The next time you’re looking at moving into uncharted territory, it’s important to know who has the vision — no matter how difficult they may be on a personal level — that can pull you through the chaos and resistance.

Have you worked with a mercurial leader? What have you learned from them?

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.  Please send me a tweet @scottpropp or drop me an email.

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