Beware the Pseudo-Leader

Holding a position of leadership doesn’t make you a leader.

Just observe political candidates who jump in front of a poll-tested parade and call themselves the leader. Or take a look at beneficiaries of large fortunes who assume they wound up on third base by hitting a triple. Or consider those who made it to the top through self-promotion. Finally, watch tyrants who maintain their power by intimidation. Having title, office, votes or guns does not alone make one a leader.

All these pseudo-leaders confuse positions of leadership with true leadership. As poseurs, sooner or later, most fail – either personally or institutionally, obviously or insidiously. But, in their grasping for power, they don’t just diminish the lives of those condemned to follow them. Their style of position-dependent leadership often comes to haunt their own lives.

Some have dismissed altogether the role of leaders in outcomes, arguing that leadership is little more than a vague attribution of causation to an individual – and therefore doesn’t matter. But other commentators have lamented that today’s “leadership industry” has altogether failed to produce real leaders. These commentators are coaching wannabe leaders to hoard power, claim credit, and ignore fidelity to values in pursuit of benighted self-interests.

I saw earlier versions of this movie around the time I graduated from business school. In the 1970s, Robert Ringer’s Winning Through Intimidation andLooking Out for #1 were all the rage. Warmed over now, four decades later, the notions I rejected as I began my leadership journey have morphed and resurfaced as “new research,” notably in the Atlantic Monthly’s “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk” in June.

The rehash of the ’70s me-first version of “leadership” reminded me of what David Halberstam wrote in the 20th-anniversary foreword to The Best and the Brightest, his 1972 best-seller about the origins of the Vietnam War and the foreign policy constructed by the intellectuals in President John Kennedy’s administration. Halberstam recounts Lyndon Johnson raving to Sam Rayburn, the speaker of the House, about JFK’s brilliant young team. Replied Rayburn, the savvy veteran: “I’d feel a whole lot better about them if just one of them had run for sheriff once.”

As someone who’s “run for sheriff” more than once, as well as backed hundreds of leaders and taught thousands of students and business executives, I can tell you that there are no shortcuts to true leadership – and certainly not of the “jerk” variety. Anyone resuscitating Ringer’s self-serving advice would know that if they had actually been a leader. Those who take the duties of leadership seriously – and are not simply observers – will reject the “new research” as soundly as I rejected the ’70s version of what it took to be a leader.

Celebrating “smart power plays,” Ringer’s inheritors confuse “leadership” with position. Real leaders of community organizations, families, churches, schools and businesses – in other words, those doing the real work – know it involves effort and sacrifice, courage and resilience. It requires caring about those you’re leading. It demands telling the truth, making tough calls and, above all, implementing them thoughtfully. Those actually performing these leadership tasks will identify with what former president Teddy Roosevelt said in his famous“Man in the Arena” speech more than a century ago:

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again… who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause…his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Grabbing the corner office or an inflated title may work fine if you’re a jerk. But real leadership demands what Roosevelt prized – taking responsibility for outcomes, having a devotion to worthy efforts, and being able to overcome setbacks. The re-emerging cynical notions that leaders only win by intimidation, and ignore honesty and trustworthiness, are hogwash. Moreover, as I wrote in apost last week on office “bad guys,” I invite real leaders – sometimes hidden among the pseudo-leaders – to reject the idea of hiding behind hired guns to do their dirty work.

To all in leadership positions anywhere, I ask you to consider that your job is to lead others to summits they might not achieve without your assistance – and to do it by removing obstacles, securing resources, and providing feedback in a culture of respect and trust.

Leadership matters. Great leaders are rarer than those occupying positions of leadership. The real leaders rarely got there by being jerks. Real leaders don’t bully those over whom they have stewardship. More than 40 years of backing real leaders has taught me they do make a difference – often, all the difference.

By Joel Peterson