Do Leaders Simply Look for Themselves When Hiring?

In 2016, there are more women and minorities in leadership positions than there have been at any time in the country’s history. This isn’t to say that we don’t have a long way yet to go before achieving anything close to equal representation in the higher reaches of government and the corporate world, but undeniable strides have been made since I began my career as a management consultant and academic decades ago. These days, there are numerous highly visible leaders who are women, people of color, or both, whom one can tick off at a moment’s notice: from Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi, to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and our current president Barack Obama. And yet in looking back at some of my earliest research on diversity in corporate culture, I’m struck by how much has remained the same in spite of all that has changed. So why has the movement toward the top been so sluggish? There are myriad socioeconomic forces at play that are inarguably worthy of discussion but which I won’t get into here. The cause that I want to get at today is far more subtle than the blatant racism and sexism that we see, sadly, writ large on the national stage in the run-up to the 2016 election. This is a kind of discrimination that many managers fall prey to, despite their very best intentions. Simply put, when people in positions of power (leaders and managers) are choosing their teams, they tend to hire people who remind them of themselves. This can come from obvious similarities (race, religion, educational background) or more subtly, through similar behavior, values, or belief systems).

Those in leadership positions are often extremely protective of any source of acquired power. Therefore, leaders are only inclined to share their power and its privileges with those they trust. And most find it easiest to trust those they feel they best understand, who “fit in,” who are familiar, who are similar. You can see where this is going. The bastions of power are dominated by white men, and the power gets passed on ad infinitum to other white men who remind them of themselves. This tendency, noticed and named back in the 1960s by management theorist Wilbert Moore, is known as “homosocial reproduction,” and it plays a huge part in keeping power secure in the hands of those who have always held it. It is responsible for not only hiring practices but also, perhaps even more crucially, determining whom those in power choose to network with, which has a major impact on who within an organization has access to opportunities for advancement.

In large corporations I often hear the term “fit” used to cloak this unnamed prejudice. Is candidate x a good “fit” for the company dynamic? Will they be a “fit” with clients, with their coworkers? What used to be blatant—managers once made no bones about looking for candidates of a certain race (white) or gender (male) with certain class backgrounds, who attended the same schools or served in the same branch of the armed services as they did—is now far more subtle. There is the unspoken expectation that, even if you are not actually like those in leadership positions, you had better behave like them. Just ask any woman if she ever feared not being taken seriously if she acted too “feminine” in a workplace characterized by masculine men in power.

So how do we combat something so pernicious? Especially as well-meaning managers may be responding to more of an unconscious bias than any malevolent desire to keep women and minorities out of power.

The first step, as with so many things of this nature, is simply recognizing that it exists and persists despite social progress in other areas. Denying that inequalities exist is a surefire way to keep them in place.

Quite aside from diverse hiring practices being the right thing to do ethically, there is now a mountain of evidence to suggest that it’s one of the best things you can do for your organization’s bottom line. Research shows time and again that diverse thinking and healthy conflict are a requirement for effective decision-making. It follows that if you hire only people exactly like you, this is very unlikely to happen. Leaders who rigorously question their own tendencies to look for themselves in those they hire and promote have the best chance of success in the long term.

Finding an Appetite for Vision

As we discussed last week, there is plenty of evidence that a leader with a strong vision can help an organization thrive. Increasingly, the need for an organizational vision is conventional and accepted wisdom. So why does the gap between believing in this and doing it persist? Why is it so hard for leaders to develop and implement a vision? Over the past decade, I’ve found that leaders who overcame this gap were adept at being able to see far into the future; they also had a greater capacity for introspection and were able to see and understand their own feelings as the vision evolved. They could articulate the vision and their passion for it both to themselves and to others. They were willing to face the reality that if the vision process at their organization stalled, it was perhaps because of their own inertia. And, most important, they were willing to be true to their own values and refrain from placing blame for inaction on some institutional imperative or “resistance to change.” Rather than viewing the vision dispassionately from the outside, they engaged in a full exploration of how they thought and felt about the vision and what would be required of them to implement it.

These leaders were willing to ask themselves a critical question: “Where does my appetite for vision, with all the risk inherent in its development, come from?” The response to this question provides important insight into where your particular passion stems from.

The “appetite” often comes from living through life-changing events that trigger unique insights, and emerging with a new resolve. It comes from finding the passion on a personal level and harnessing it to hold on to, even before the vision development process gets under way.

Many people have been forced to look inward for meaning in response to an emotionally charged event such as the death or serious illness of a loved one, a divorce, growing up poor or discriminated against, rejection by a role model—things beyond their control that were integral to who they became. These experiences may leave them with feelings of profound separateness, perhaps anger and disorientation. For these people, what often emerges is the need to examine goals, values, and how they want to live in the world. The question, “Why did this happen to me?” evokes emotional energy, which can either be turned on oneself in a counterproductive way or applied in a creative burst of productive energy.

Two wonderful examples of leaders who used this energy for good are Andy Grove and Dave Thomas. Grove is the former CEO and current chairman of Intel. He escaped Nazi Europe with his parents, learned new languages to survive, came to the United States with virtually nothing, worked his way through college and a doctoral program, and waged a winning fight against prostate cancer. Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, was an adopted orphan and high school dropout who ended up leading a chain of six thousand restaurants. He had the audacity to think he could improve on the fast-food burger, and he dedicated his life to helping abandoned children.

Theories and research that attempt to explain the success of organizational leaders express a similar theme: leadership is less about sheer talent than about introspection forged from events that caused great discomfort or even suffering. It is more than a coincidence that so many people who have successfully built and run complex organizations have been shaped into leaders by great personal trials. At one time or another they have had to let go of something they thought was important.

Now, they seek to help others cross the abyss between where they are—the status quo—and where they want to be: that highly defined vision of the distant future. Perhaps they can do this for others because they have had to do it for themselves. They have the capacity to speak to the depths of another person because they are in touch with their own deeper conflicts. They found support along the way through the intensity of their convictions and their awareness of the impressions they left on others.

In 1987, serial nonprofit executive director Elisabet Eklind got married and moved to the United States from Stockholm, Sweden, where she had lived all her life. In March 1993, her husband died after a long battle with cancer. She told me that as she sat in her home after his death, she realized that she could either “die” then and there as well—simply continue going through the motions of living—or she could rebuild herself. Start again, in other words, and work through the pain. She chose the latter and, as she says, has emerged “a stronger, better person for the effort.”

Eklind’s effort to find a new awareness has shaped her life in ways she never imagined. It has also shaped the way she approaches her work, first as executive director of HIPPY USA, a nonprofit whose purpose is to enhance the potential for educational success of low-income children, then with other nonprofits she led, and now as the executive director of the international NGO VGIF. She realized that to truly realign the values of her organization, she would have to bring the effects of her personal journey to bear on the effort. “You carry significant experiences with you, and they shape the way you look at the world,” she said. “And if you let them, they shape the way you approach your work and think about what your organization or company needs. I began using my own personal experiences at HIPPY to help see the organization with greater clarity than I ever could have before.”

Those who create and implement visions that serve as engines for guided corporate growth know who they are and what they want their organizations to be. Their articulated vision comes alive from a conviction that not only meets their personal need for action but is also part of a much larger purpose. In this way, all of us may turn the worst moments in our life into an opportunity to become something greater.

What significant event in your life has helped you better understand your core values, and how might those values play a part in your organization’s vision?

What the Seahawks Can Teach Us About Combatting Mean

It’s hard to think of an organization more rooted in the kind of toxic masculine stereotypes that typify the mean man than the NFL. And yet, one of its most successful franchises of the last few years, the Seattle Seahawks, serves as a prime example of authentic leadership at its best. “The hero and the psychopath may be twigs on the same genetic branch,” wrote the late David Lykken, a University of Minnesota professor of psychiatry and psychology. When we look at it this way, it’s unsurprising to see this dichotomy playing out on the football field: the beating heart of American hero worship. It’s true that both the hero and the psychopath possess a fearless temperament. But whereas the successful psychopath is the product of a culture in which meanness has run amok, the hero gives us insight into what it looks like to be successful without resorting to meanness.

We’ve examined on this blog numerous organizations in which mean rules and no one takes action, where the combination of outsize ambition and lack of empathy causes suffering. But what does it look like when ambition is channeled appropriately? When risk is part of the game but it’s not everything? When people are treated as people, not objects?

The Seattle Seahawks have an organizational philosophy that closely mirrors the cultures and practices of the Best Companies on Fortune’s list and gives us a peek into the potential antidote for organizational meanness. And nowhere is meanness more pervasive and tolerated than in professional sports. When considering potential draft picks (job candidates in this context), the Seahawks look at the language used by the players and cut from the pool those who lean on negative language or finger-pointing. They want a culture of accountability and optimism, and they start by getting the right people in the room.

The team’s coach, Pete Carroll, seems the antithesis of what we think of when we picture NFL coaches, screaming on the sideline, veins bulging, faces red. In a style that belies a fervent commitment to winning, Carroll is all about encouragement, not laying blame. He gives the individual men on the team the freedom to be themselves and sees himself as on a constant journey to identify and maximize the uniqueness of every player and coach. He is committed to a nurturing environment that allows people to be themselves while still being accountable to the team. This is a leader who recognizes that the best results will come from having happy, healthy men on his team. Carroll incorporates meditation and yoga into the team’s workouts, and yelling and swearing are strongly discouraged.

The top-down civility of Pete Carroll has a tremendous effect on all of his staff as well as his players. Tom Cable, the former coach of the Oakland Raiders with a colorful mean-man past, changed his coaching style after working with Pete Carroll as the assistant head coach and offensive line coach. “If I go ballistic on a guy because he dropped his outside hand or missed an underneath stunt, who is wrong? I am,” Cable says now. “I’m attacking his self-confidence and he’s learning that if he screws up, he is going to get yelled at. If you make a mistake here, it’s going to get fixed.”

Compare this with a speech given during the 2013 Rookie Symposium by Chris Ballard, former director of player personnel for the Kansas City Chiefs, who told the newly minted young players, “Nobody cares about your problems. The fans don’t care. The media doesn’t care. And ownership doesn’t care. They care about results.” This speech is hardly surprising in the no-whining-be-a-man culture of the NFL, but it’s still shockingly callous considering that it was delivered a scant seven months after a member of that same NFL team, Jovan Belcher, shot his girlfriend nine times before driving to the team’s facility and killing himself in the parking lot.

So what are the implications of the Seahawks’ unique culture of getting results while making the players’ health and well-being a top priority? Namely that being civil is not only better, but more effective. This idea, encouragingly, is starting to catch on. As many mean men as I’ve encountered in my work, I’ve been pleasantly surprised over the past few years by certain clients’ sensitivities to rooting out abusive management. Many civil entrepreneurs running firms in aggressive industries—such as hedge funds and tech companies—were shocked to discover the abuse that some of their senior managers heaped on employees. It doesn’t take a mean CEO to create a toxic climate given the proclivity of certain industries to attract mean men like jackals to fresh meat. But if the situation is flipped in these aggressive fields and the leader is civil, then the abuser is often rooted out and crushed.

In professional worlds where meanness is more than tolerated, leaders like Pete Carroll give us hope for change. If a pro football team can make it to the Super Bowl on the tailwind of civility, imagine what other organizations might accomplish.

Why the Best Leaders Trust Their Employees

“By the standards of the rest of the world, we overtrust. So far it has worked very well for us. Some would see it as a weakness.” That reflection comes to us from Charlie Munger, vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett’s business partner and best friend, who ruminated on the state of corporate life at Berkshire Hathaway’s annual meeting in spring 2014. Buffett and Munger’s firm is run in the exact opposite way many would expect a diverse amalgamation of companies to be run. By all accounts, it is run more like a massive entrepreneurial venture than a lumbering conglomerate. Both men are allergic to distrustful corporate cultures, but how do you use trust to manage the fifth-largest company in the United States, with $162 billion in revenue and 300,000 employees worldwide? How do you operate dozens of diverse businesses without a risk-managing general counsel overseeing them all? Without a finger-wagging centralized human resources department telling every operating unit what to do or not do? In other words, how do you dispense with the control mechanisms that enable Buffett and Munger’s mean man counterparts to feel utterly omnipotent? It could seem at best naïve and at worst negligent to run a large business like this. But in truth, the trust Munger mentioned can be a kind of superpower, one whose potential often remains unlocked or is misused. But Buffett and Munger get it: their management philosophy is based on finding trustworthy managers and giving them an enormous amount of control. Over the years, they’ve shown how this creates more value than if they consolidated the control in the company’s Omaha headquarters and monitored the business’s every move.

At a 2007 meeting, Munger said, “A lot of people think if you just had more process and more compliance—checks and double-checks and so forth—you could create a better result in the world. Well, Berkshire has had practically no process. We had hardly any internal auditing until they forced it on us. We just try to operate in a seamless web of deserved trust and be careful whom we trust.”

The belief that a leader can accomplish more by developing a culture of trust than by implementing multiple layers of control may seem unrealistic in today’s age of complex, fast-growing start-ups. But two researchers from the University of Zurich have shown that the more a firm focuses on controlling and monitoring their employees, the more new problems arise.

Control-heavy leadership not only doesn’t make people behave the way you want them to but also has the paradoxical effect of encouraging them to take advantage of the firm they’re supposed to care about. Researchers Margit Osterloh and Bruno Frey call this phenomenon governance for crooks. Whereas when organizations put a premium on trust, people tend to act in more ethical, civil, and productive ways.

In firms run by mean men, trust is doled out like small crumbs—and vacuumed away just as easily. Their need for control makes building genuine trust impossible. This absence of trust then creates its own self-fulfilling prophecy. When people do not feel trusted, they’re more likely to act in an untrustworthy manner. Intrinsic sources of motivation evaporate, and they become more focused on what they want to get from the organization, rather than what’s right for the team.

Today’s smartest companies put a higher level of trust in their workforce and seek to raise employee engagement at all levels—building in involvement, commitment, passion, enthusiasm, focused effort, and energy to employees’ work experiences.

Engagement has now been widely correlated with higher corporate performance. It embodies what the new generation of talented workers expects, and what most of us probably always wanted. In a 2012 analysis of 263 research studies across 192 companies, Gallup found that companies ranking in the top 25 percent for employee engagement, compared with the bottom 25 percent, had 22 percent higher profitability, 10 percent higher customer ratings, 28 percent less theft, and 48 percent fewer safety incidents.

Trust is an even bigger deal.

Billy Joel’s song “A Matter of Trust” starts off hard and loud. In the second line he sings, “The cold remains of what began with a passionate start.”

A passionate start. I’d be hard-pressed to find a better way to capture how mean men use their manipulative, faux-charismatic charm to create a passionate start with those who don’t know them well. But the passion never lasts; ultimately it becomes revulsion.

Incivility, in any form, ultimately chips away at the bottom line, even if in some cases it bumps up short-term profit and stock price. Authentic leadership—the kind that emphasizes trust and engagement—on the other hand, creates workplaces that have greater loyalty, reduced absenteeism, increased reliability, and higher job performance.

I’ll leave you with a stunning observation from a group of UK researchers: when leaders act with authentic leadership and infuse expectations for pro-social behaviors into their corporate cultures, their employees’ desire for achievement increases (a good thing, since it directly translates to higher motivation for employees), and their need for power—the bad kind—decreases. Something about authentic leadership and pro-social behaviors makes us want to work harder while at the same time reducing our need to control other people.

It all comes down to a matter of trust.

Why Transparency Is Tricky

I’ve posed the question before on this blog: Who is responsible for holding mean men accountable? For exposing their wrongdoing when necessary?

There may be hundreds of reputable news outlets covering business, but they often don’t do as much as they should. It doesn’t help that mean men are, almost by definition, charmers. Combine money with power with connections with influence, and you begin to see why the mainstream media seems to “miss” certain truths that the general public has always sensed. And while the media catches up or reorganizes its priorities, we need greater transparency inside our largest corporations and organizations.

Just a few decades ago, it was unthinkable that subordinates would evaluate a leader. We aren’t talking as far back as Mad Men even—we are talking the era of Friends. The 360-degree evaluation didn’t become popular in US organizations until the 1990s. Now, in Fortune 500 companies and top nonprofit organizations, it’s the norm.

Executive coaching also used to be a rarity, and when it came into full bloom—also in the nineties—it carried as much stigma as seeing a shrink did back in my parents’ day. A CEO that needed a coach was a CEO who couldn’t manage his or her problems. Today, a large percentage of people are turning to executive coaches, and surveys show that having an experienced professional coach in their corner helps good leaders achieve more.

Let me emphasize that last statement: experienced coaches help good CEOs and leaders, not those who are “successful” psychopaths with highly complex narcissistic issues.

I should know: I’ve been in the executive coaching business for two decades, and I’ve worked with young, unpolished entrepreneurs who simply needed a little sanding around the edges, and I’ve also worked with egomaniacal mean men. Only in the rarest of the latter cases did we make significant, sustainable headway.

Tools exist for making any one of us more accountable, but forcing people to use these tools—even if they themselves claim they are up for change—can be challenging. Not many of us can easily open up a part of ourselves and allow others to sit in judgment. Entertaining the idea of change is one thing—being forced to do things differently based on feedback others are giving you can be anathema, particularly to entrepreneurial men who thrive on control.

Most leaders today recognize that if they want to be considered “modern,” they’d better step into the coaching and self-evaluating ball game. That said, how do we advise employees who have information about unethical or illegal behavior in the higher levels on how to proceed without fear? Transparency for transparency’s sake does no good unless each and every employee feels they can offer the truest feedback and criticism. But in organizations led my mean men, it’s a sure route to HR for the exit interview.

It’s clear we need to also address how to better advise CEOs and boards about handling reports of unsavory or illegal misconduct. We’ve seen in the news what happens when powerful people get tossed a damaging report only to then juggle it like a hand grenade—take Dov Charney and the American Apparel case for example. Talk about a story with excessive shrapnel.

So what took everybody so long?

One person—whether he or she is reporting misconduct or is the board member taking note of it—can make a difference. In all my years of coaching CEOs and advising boards, I’ve found it exceedingly rare that any serious concern finally being reported has not already long been on the minds of other employees and executives. All it takes is one person to get up the nerve to act, and the situation, if handled properly, can then move quickly and directly into action against the perpetrator.

Too many boards wrongly assume that the absence of complaints means that all is well. I am often called in on these cases after employees reached their limits and reported to external parties. Boards must invite transparency before it’s too late. They must reach out, ask questions, and encourage dialogue. In the age of the web, sure, powerful founders and CEOs can spin stories and create impressive branding to match their narcissism. But the web is also gaining power as a mouthpiece for employees. Glassdoor is only one of many websites that invites people to anonymously share the pros and cons of where they work and whom they work for. Leaders can snub sites like if reviews are horrific and may even go on a witch hunt in search of the employee who posted about the SoB CEO, but that typically leads nowhere. And despite what I said in the opening of this post about media sellouts, more and more online news outlets are making it their business to highlight controversial leaders.

Responsibility for creating a system that encourages constructive self-criticism belongs to those at the top. Responsibility for maintaining the integrity and usefulness of this system lies with every employee at every level. Firms that don’t allow for a transparent culture risk great peril.

Credibility and reputation are lost quickly in the Internet era. No firm is too big to fail. Once the story of Dov Charney’s firing broke, pundits came out of the woodwork, asking: Why didn’t the board do this years ago when they had more than sufficient evidence for cause? But why should a board failing to act surprise us? Charney was no fool when he put the American Apparel board together—he recruited members who had little experience running a major public company and was therefore able to keep them at bay. Board members have traditionally been left in the dark, and mean men are calculating—this does not surprise us.

The message that boards and mean men cannot help but hear right now is this: if you don’t fully embrace a transparent culture, the Internet will eventually out you. Some of your media ties will do the dance with you, but stories leak. Stories about assholes leak faster. The Internet has more muscle than you do, and you will only get away with it—whatever it is—for so long.

As of early June 2015, in response to Charney’s case against them for defamation, American Apparel delivered a restraining order against him, prompting one reporter to refer to him as the bad ex-boyfriend who just isn’t taking the hint and another to ask: “Does anyone know if American Apparel even makes clothes anymore?”

Is Mean the New Normal?

I love reading the comments I receive each week on my blog posts. Most reader reactions have been overwhelmingly positive, with folks from all over the country reaching out to share their stories of how they are struggling with mean men in the workplace and elsewhere. But of course, I’m also hearing plenty from the old boys’ club—“Hey, Lipton, quit your whining. This is the way business is done!”

These are the men who hate to see the status quo questioned and who are threatened by equality, openness, transparency, and civility. In other words, to not have unfettered control over other people drives them nuts. I believe that the more we call out mean behaviors and discuss how to extinguish them, the more those who rely on such tactics will eventually be left in the dust. I know the next generation of smart and worldly workers doesn’t take meanness sitting down, and many new companies—such as Google, Guidewire, and HubSpot—consider meanness already a thing of the past. But that old boys’ club isn’t going down without a fight. And in the meantime, we have our current reality to contend with—where there’s plenty of mean to go around.

Most of us shape our behavior according to cues in both our immediate environment and the broader culture. If you live in a small Midwestern town where strangers greet each other on the street, you’ll start to say hello. Likewise, if being mean, aggressively competitive, and outrageously rude seems not only okay but culturally encouraged, you’re more likely to be a jerk.

A number of recent polls indicate that Americans think authentic leadership is in decline. Authentic in this context means the leader has a clear vision and focuses on the big picture (rather than just obsessing over the next quarter’s results). Authentic leaders have strong values and beliefs, and their behavior is consistent with those values and beliefs. These are leaders who are guided by not only their heads but also their hearts: they show emotion and vulnerability and truly connect with their employees. Authentic leaders are results driven, but they put their organizations’ and employees’ interests ahead of their own. Too pie-in-the-sky? Take a look at Bill George’s powerful research. These leaders get results.

Americans now see the workplace as ruder and more competitive than ever, and they blame leadership for setting this tone. Other polls have found that fewer Americans than ever like their jobs or see their employers as trustworthy and loyal.

But you don’t need to go into the office to witness our nation’s cultural descent; just turn on your television. How many shows feature nothing but backstabbing, conniving, and catty contestants and characters? TV has taken the trend in crass far beyond Donald Trump’s “You’re fired!” Now, Chef Gordon Ramsay reams nervous chef wannabes. Real housewives from every major US city engage not just in catfights but in full-fledged brawls. Investors on Shark Tank have themselves a ball ridiculing striving entrepreneurs’ start-up ideas.

The level of public brutality, shaming, and shamefulness we mindlessly ingest today would have been unthinkable during the days of Norman Lear’s merely sarcastic sitcoms. Even (the late) Tony Soprano, a mafia man for crying out loud, contextualized his meanness—and was psychologically troubled by it. In sports too, look at our so-called heroes. From doping dramas to cheating scandals to the rampant domestic violence in a number of sports—it’s not a pretty picture.

What messages are we sending our kids about consequence and reward when we laud these people? It’s no wonder that a 2012 survey of high school students found that 57 percent agreed with the statement: “In the real world, successful people do what they have to do to win, even if others consider it cheating.”

We’re spending millions per year in our schools to preach the anti-bullying message to kids—and how is that going? How will it play out when they get to the workplace?

A ruder society brings everyone down. Nobody wants to be the nice guy wearing his sunscreen and sun visor in the shark tank. Nobody wants to be the chump who dots every i and crosses every t when everyone else is cheating and getting away with it. Mean men can, and do, point to the harsh world around them as an excuse for their actions, and so mean begets mean in a never-ending cycle.

Prominent psychiatrists Harold Greenwald and Nathan Ackerman saw psychopathy as a “contagious and virulent” social disease. Greenwald noted that a few of his trainees had even asked if he could help them “become” sociopaths, saying they would like to learn how to do whatever they pleased and not give a rat’s ass about everybody else.

Sure, we might all appreciate the supervillain in the movies or in our favorite novel. Leonardo DiCaprio makes a handsome wolf. Mad Men’s Don Draper oozes charisma. And maybe enjoying one cutthroat TV show isn’t enough to turn a person into an aggressive a-hole. But the problem is, there’s too much adoration of jerks. Even worse—studies find we actually give jerks power.

In Jerry Useem’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk,” we meet Darren Dahl, a professor of marketing and behavioral science at University of British Columbia. Dahl reports having entered a high-end retail store one day not quite looking high-end himself. When the saleswoman in the shop looked him over and shook her head, Dahl didn’t leave the store—instead, he made purchases he hadn’t intended to make. After berating himself, Dahl then wondered if other people would open their wallets in the clear face of rudeness too.

I wish I didn’t have to report what he discovered: “When it came to ‘aspirational’ brands like Gucci, Burberry, and Louis Vuitton, participants were willing to pay more in a scenario in which they felt rejected.”

Maybe shopping for luxury brands isn’t your thing, but the point is this: mean men don’t operate in a vacuum. Something is operating deep in our psychology in the way we react to and actually succumb to them.


I want to hear from you, commenters: Why are we so drawn to mean?

Can We Protect Those Who Confront Mean Men?

We’re all privy to the dramas of mean men as they unfold in the media, but what about when those offenses happen closer to home? What if it’s you or one of your colleagues suffering at the hands of a mean boss? How do you call them on it . . . and who do you call? What may be the consequences of blowing the whistle? The intricacies of whistleblower protection in the United States came to the public’s attention in 2002, when the exceedingly bad behavior of a group of rogue top executives at Enron begat the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002. This act provides protection to employees who decide to blow the whistle when they have evidence of illegal conduct.

Whistleblower legislation is not new. The Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989 covers federal whistleblowers; the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 covers employees of publicly owned corporations; and in 2014, protection was significantly widened by the US Supreme Court to include private corporations functioning as subcontractors to publicly owned firms.

Still, all this legalese provides little comfort to the individual who is working in an organization that fails to meet these criteria for protection.

The ethics violations that are most frequently reported are not confined to obviously illegal acts such as financial fraud or safety violations. The Ethics Resource Center notes in its 2011 National Business Ethics Survey that the top unethical workplace behavior cited was misuse of company time. The second and third most frequent forms of misconduct reported were abusive behavior and lying to employees.

Patricia Harned, the center’s president, says that although abuse is not often labeled unethical, it is the number one reason people leave their jobs.

It gets worse.

Whistleblowing is on the rise, but so is retaliation. According to the Ethics Resource Center’s report, more than one-fifth of employees interviewed—two times as many as reported in 2007—said they had experienced negative consequences for reporting workplace misconduct. Some were simply given the cold shoulder, while others were passed over for promotion.

And it gets worse still: in 2011, 31 percent of whistleblowers said they received physical threats when outed, compared to 4 percent in 2009.

Retaliation against whistleblowers doesn’t just threaten individuals: it threatens our culture. To curb this egregious behavior, we must attempt to do all of the following simultaneously:

  • create a system and a process that fosters the exposure of abusive behavior
  • protect the whistleblower
  • ensure that the information gets to the proper authorities

One major obstacle to employees of entrepreneur-driven firms safely and securely naming or ousting mean men is that they have no “big law” backing. Many of these firms lack a strong internal system of checks and balances, and higher-ups simply don’t know what’s going on day to day in the ranks. In these cases, implementation of a 360-degree review or upward review process, where employees rate their managers, can help.

In 2013, I was asked to consult for an aggressive sales-driven firm with a mean entrepreneur at the helm. This man hoarded as much control as possible, and in the arrogant style typical of so many mean men, he believed he couldn’t lose.

A few years earlier, he had created a board that he planned to use whenever he needed to. Believing that his new board members would be happy simply to take a directorship fee and add some gravitas to meetings, he was shaken to discover that, in fact, they had a very low tolerance for behavior that could damage their company.

When word about his toxicity began to trickle in from reliable sources, action was taken. I helped set up a full management assessment process, and the company swiftly kicked this individual to the curb. Nobody has looked back since.

Another organization I worked with recently was founded by a brilliant entrepreneur who many considered demonically possessed by the will to achieve. He worked nonstop in a cutthroat industry, and yet, unlike our arrogant control freak above, this man expected and fostered civility. He promoted the notion that if you treat employees with respect, they’ll do their best.

This man wasn’t threatened by the idea of implementing a system of checks and balances; in fact, he invited me to create one that was anchored in the values he aspired to for his firm. Employees participated enthusiastically because they felt safe and empowered. The culture quickly became even healthier, with everyone, literally, reaping greater net profit.

There is no singular silver bullet to address mean men who are in positions of power. Context-specific solutions work, but they must be organization-specific and leadership-specific as well. Clarity about the values that undergird the firm’s culture, along with a zeal for actually instilling those values, must exist. Consequences for breaching civility must be meaningful in order to bring about cultural change.

Leaders who tend not to play well with others tend to play even worse when cornered or exposed. And according to the numbers above, these leaders are getting away with committing abuse upon abuse now more than ever before—despite whistleblowing legislation and the increased public awareness of bullying.

Setting up better internal systems of checks and balances will help ensure that whistleblowers do report. How can we expect brave whistleblowers to put their careers—and sometimes even their well-being—on the line if we don’t have their backs?

The deeper issue here, however, is the culture that permits these abuses to run rampant to begin with. When mean men are excused for egregious behavior by their boards as long as they have a solid bottom line, when they’re given a pass from the media for as long as their success holds, and when we explain them away as fragile, emotional geniuses, we’re giving them the green light to treat people however they see fit. And we all need to blow the whistle on that.

Why Mean Men Get a Pass from the Media

The media can be a force for exposing mean men, but it could be a lot more powerful. Even stories that strive to be a drumbeat for action come across as sounding as hollow as a toddler’s toy bongo. Rarely does the press linger long enough on business leaders’ abusive behavior. Walter Isaacson did serious damage to Steve Jobs’s reputation by revealing what a terrible person he was, but Isaacson’s book came out after Jobs had passed. And while plenty of other writers and former colleagues had chronicled and spoken out over the years about Jobs’s personal flaws, the mainstream business press seldom drew on those reports in a way that would have given the public a more balanced portrayal of Jobs as a leader.

In 2009, for example, Fortune named him CEO of the decade. Beyond briefly noting that he was a “tyrannical perfectionist,” the fawning article had nothing specific to say about his treatment of people. The stock-option backdating scandal was mentioned only in passing, quoting Jobs as saying that it was “completely out of character for Apple.” Overall, the CEO of the decade emerged from the article as a towering hero.

Of course, some business leaders do receive negative press for their bad behavior. Gossip-driven online publications such as Gawker, the Drudge Report, and, to an extent, Business Insider act like an extra set of eyes on the streets, at high-society gatherings, and in boardrooms—and no one is exempt from their critical gaze. But still, even the most serious of offenses are relegated to click-bait status. In addition, reports of abusive or offensive behavior are often accompanied shortly thereafter by lavish praise and the rationalization that being a monster simply comes with the territory of being a genius.

Case in point: Harvey Weinstein. His assault on a reporter and his threats to the chair of the DNC were such high-profile outbursts that they were impossible to ignore, but articles recounting these instances tended to be positive overall. In one New York magazine profile, David Carr wrote: “All the legendary bad behavior cannot obscure an objective fact: Harvey Weinstein is a cultural good.” For all the “titans” he threw around in reference to Weinstein, Carr might as well have written cultural god.

Larry Ellison is another leader whose bad behavior has been widely noted by the business press only to be swiftly excused. As one reporter wrote about Ellison: “By all accounts, he is a bad listener and a big talker, whose brash, take-no-prisoners approach tends to alienate employees and customers alike. Yet, in the past 35 years, the jet-flying, sailboat-racing renegade has built Oracle into one of the most important tech firms on the planet, with annual revenues of $27 billion.”

In other words, so what if a guy would make the worst friend and golfing partner on earth and you would never let your daughter date him—he’s got great toys!

So why does the media tend to overlook or excuse lousy or abusive behavior?

Like so many of the board directors and investors who surround mean men, business reporters tend to focus on a leader’s short-term results rather than their character. Tech reporters in particular tend to be interested in innovation and what’s new, regardless of how nasty the creator behind it is. Rarely is thought given to whether a leader’s style will drive sustainable results.

Personality traits of business leaders only get attention to the degree that they feed into a bigger narrative—one that includes jets, sailboats, and multiple zeroes after the dollar sign. Many business reporters overlook the fact that leadership style and organizational culture can be central indicators of a company’s health and chances of success. For instance, the toxic culture that Mark Pincus created at Zynga started to get attention only when the company began to struggle, even though his behavior had been well known amongst his cohort for years. His board even saw fit to reinstate him recently.

Business reporters—like many of us raised to believe it’s a dog-eat-dog world—may buy into the assumption that good leaders need to be brutes in order to get results. Sure, when the going gets tough, the tough need to get going, but just because business is competitive and the stakes are high, does this mean sharp elbows are always necessary? Is doing whatever it takes to survive—including driving straight over others to get to the top—always an asset?

So much of what we read or see on television leads us to believe that the answer to the questions above is yes.

Granted, some reporters do attempt to present balanced portrayals of mean geniuses, and it isn’t always easy to get sources to open up about abusive behavior. But if you watched the first season of House of Cards, you know it takes nerves and perseverance to get the full scoop. Digging up damaging information about a leader’s personal style and behavior can quickly place a journalist’s press pass at risk.

The fact that an entrepreneur is a bullying egomaniac may seem like a side note to some, or fodder for an over-the-top tale meant for the big screen à la The Wolf of Wall Street. But if those who have access to the inner chambers of the mean men who are in charge of our nation’s wealth and culture are not acting as watchdogs, how is the American public being protected from those who would shred it to pieces?

How Civility Breeds Success

Last week, I wrote about why mean is not effective in the workplace. But is the opposite equally true? Is a harmonious, civil workplace beneficial to a company’s bottom line? It would appear that it is. For the past eighteen years, Fortune magazine has run an annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For in the United States, the results of which have become a playbook for building trust and employee engagement. The firms that make the list each year show consistently impressive financial outcomes, typically far better than their industry counterparts. Overall, the 100 Best also grow at a faster clip and have significantly lower turnover in side-by-side comparisons with comparable firms.

So what gives? Is it tangible factors like child care, free snacks, a gym, and other benefits offered by places such as Google, Genentech, and Intuit (which all consistently score within the top ten)? Certainly employees appreciate these perks, but the true common denominator is that all of these firms manage—in many cases obsessively—their workplace cultures and demand a high level of civility.

So how do highly effective entrepreneurs shape the culture that enables these firms to become rockets for growth?

Trust and Openness

Spend a week in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and you’ll inevitably find yourself at one of the Zingerman’s businesses. Originally a traditional Jewish deli, Zingerman’s was founded by Paul Saginaw and Ari Weinzweig, who realized early on that growth was dependent on figuring out how to ensure that every employee thrived at work.

Their brand is now known nationally, and what they call their “Community of Businesses” has grown to include imported gourmet foods, a bakery, a creamery, and a second restaurant (Zingerman’s Roadhouse). They’ve also expanded their brand to include a mail-order catalog, coffee, catering, and more. By 2012, the combined revenues were coming in at $45 million.

Wayne Baker, a management professor and chair of the University of Michigan’s management department, has written several case studies about Zingerman’s and its approach to achieving sustainable growth. He found that Zingerman’s shares enormous amounts of critical information with employees; teams within each unit see exactly how their division performs on a weekly basis.

They are also explicit in their intolerance of incivility. Leaders are expected to treat employees with the same high standards of respect that the employees are meant to uphold with customers. Zingerman’s has built an environment where leaders set the tone and serve as role models.

Another key to the company’s success is that each unit has a managing partner who owns part of that business. “They make the push to go for greatness,” Weinzweig says, and they operate as one business with “semiautonomous units.”

Zingerman’s management philosophy has been so successful that they decided to start a management-training company in 1996 called ZingTrain to help spread the word. The program includes such seminars as “Fun, Flavorful Finance: Why Our Dishwashers Know Our Net Operating Profit.”

Emotional Intelligence

Emotional intelligence is essential in the critical moments of a start-up. Research shows that when the status quo needs to be challenged, emotionally intelligent employees speak up more frequently and more effectively. They are also more likely to speak up—while keeping their anger in check—when colleagues are treated unjustly. And their ability to express enthusiasm helps them avoid appearing threatening to leaders when bringing new ideas to the fore. Great leaders value these employees and don’t use their own often formidable emotional intelligence to manipulate others, as mean men like Peter Arnell do.

We can see the benefits of emotional intelligence in action by looking at founders of successful companies who remain in leadership positions. Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Google are prime examples. The two founded Google while still in their twenties and were mature enough to see early on that they needed a seasoned CEO to help lead the company. But they wanted a CEO who would also value and nurture the culture they were creating at Google, a culture that valued people’s individual creativity and was supportive of their personal goals—for example, by allowing engineers to spend twenty percent of their time working on their own projects. Eric Schmidt fit that bill, and together the three men created a culture that highly talented people found empowering and appealing.

Eventually Schmidt stepped aside, and now Page is CEO of Google. I admire Google for growing so quickly while holding firm to its original values. Google’s ability to quickly grow its highly complex product and service offerings on a global scale, with an organizational structure of mind-numbing intricacy, and remain a place where employees feel valued and empowered is incredible. Full disclosure: Google has been a client of mine, though I cannot say that I often walk away with such a high opinion of leaders I’ve worked with as I did with these guys.

Facebook has a similar story. Mark Zuckerberg was very young when he cofounded it and recognized his need for growth in certain areas. He has reportedly worked hard to develop his emotional intelligence, both with executive coaching and help from Facebook’s COO, Sheryl Sandberg, a leader renowned for her combination of smarts and civility.

Zuckerberg’s position at Facebook is secure given his stock holdings and the structure of Facebook’s board. Whether he needs to or not, Zuckerberg values civility and he’s consistently ranked as one of the most well-liked CEOs in Silicon Valley.

Emotional intelligence can be a double-edged sword. It’s vital for any leader to recognize, understand, and manage emotions, but a strong intuition about others can be used toward diabolical goals. So, while companies like American Apparel fight tooth and nail to keep their founder out, the leaders who learn the value of civility may spend their entire careers atop the company they built.

The Charisma Factor

In exploring the behavior of the entrepreneurs I’ve studied, one persistent question emerges: Why do people put up with them? Even in the case of Dov Charney, his bad reputation eventually brought him down, but it took decades to do so. How is that possible? In many cases, as much as employees and board members may abhor men like Arnell and Charney, they are mesmerized by them in equal measure. Why? Charisma.

While conducting research for my book, Guiding Growth, I discovered something that intrigued me. I found that when leaders could conceptualize and communicate a strong, inspiring vision, it compelled those listening to them to identify strongly with not only the vision but also the leader who was putting it into words—regardless of whether or not his ideas were original or even his own. It also didn’t matter if the “leader” in this case was actually running the company; the attraction had little to do with organizational rank. This ability to skillfully communicate a vision has been found to be one of the defining characteristics of charisma.

Of course, these compelling visions are sometimes little more than rhetorical showmanship, and they may not actually reflect any real commitment on the speaker’s part to the matter at hand: Chris Christie is a prime example of this. No matter. If the listener is enraptured by the content and enthralled by the presentation, it can be difficult to see through the smoke and mirrors.

Charismatic leaders tend to have an extraordinary facility with language, making effective use of allegory, analogy, metaphor, and symbols to make their point. Nonverbally, there is often particular mindfulness paid to physical appearance, eye contact, voice modulation, and body language: an uncanny ability to read personal and social cues.

Steve Jobs personified the charismatic leader—someone who inspired those around him even though working with him could be unbearable. Jobs was particularly famous for his penetrating, unblinking stare. He would gaze into a person’s eyes, ask them questions, and hold the stare while waiting for an answer. This stare was not an unconscious tendency: Jobs had trained himself to be able to stare without blinking for long periods. According to his biographer, Walter Isaacson, Jobs saw his intensity as an instrument of persuasion: “He taught himself to stare without blinking so he could talk people into things.” An early Apple employee would later say that Jobs “reminded me of Rasputin. He laser-beamed in on you and didn’t blink. It didn’t matter if he was serving purple Kool-Aid. You drank it.”

The modus operandi of leaders like Jobs runs counter to our current cultural ideal of those who lead with great empathy and humility. But many of the men heading up companies continue to rely on in-your-face intimidation tactics to lead.

Looking beneath the tough exteriors of these larger-than-life leaders, however, can provide a more subtle insight into human motivation and organizational behavior. Psychologist Howard Gardner suggested the term social intelligence to explain how some leaders become so adept at getting others to follow them and, in the process, inspiring a high level of performance from their followers. Gardner defined social intelligence in terms of a leader’s interpersonal skills, such as empathy and the ability to influence others on the basis of that understanding.

Another thing Jobs was famous for was the visionary way he talked about computing and, later, music and phones. He was energetic and could dazzle listeners with his vision of the future, pushing them to think beyond what seemed possible. Investors wanted to give him money, and engineers and designers wanted to work with him, and he became an object of near cultlike admiration.

The reality of working with Steve Jobs was not so rosy: he was infamous for his tantrums, his put-downs, and his unreasonable requests. Jony Ive, Jobs’s longtime lieutenant at Apple, would say, “The normal rules of social engagement do not apply to him. Because of how very sensitive he is, he knows exactly how to efficiently and effectively hurt someone.”

This highlights a key difference between socially intelligent and politically intelligent leaders. Both are adept at sizing other people up, and both have a keen, discriminating eye for human behavior. But while socially intelligent leaders assess people’s strengths and figure out how to make the most of them, politically intelligent leaders focus on people’s weaknesses and exploit them. Bill Moyers, onetime press secretary of world-class intimidator Lyndon Johnson, commented that Johnson had “an animal sense of weakness in other men.” A political scientist once remarked that Johnson studied, analyzed, cataloged, and remembered the strengths and weaknesses and the likes and dislikes of other politicians the way others collect data on stock picks or batting averages.

Socially intelligent leaders pull the levers of empathy and use “soft power” to build bridges and get things done, while mean men like Jobs bully and intimidate to bend people to their will, exploiting the anxieties and vulnerabilities of underlings to gain an upper hand.

We often use the term charismatic as a compliment, but like so many of the entrepreneurial traits I’ve researched, in the wrong hands, charisma can be a treacherous weapon.