Is Hillary Mean?

As a follow-up to my last post regarding Donald Trump as the quintessential Mean Man, I did some thinking about Hillary Clinton and her rise to leadership. In today’s political climate, Mean Men abound, but what about Mean Women? In all my years working with high-powered entrepreneurs, I have never encountered women behaving in some of the psychotic ways I’ve seen men behave. Now, thanks to the antics of the Republican front-runners, what should have been a historic campaign of ideas between would-be leaders has morphed into a blazing rocket of tabloid fodder and idiocy. I’d argue that Trump and Cruz embody the Mean Man, and it got me to wondering again—Are there Mean Women? Is Hillary allowed to be mean? Would we put up with such behavior from the candidate who aspires to become the first female president of the United States, or is she held to a different standard? Every time I’ve posted on the gender expectations around mean in the past, my comments section is flooded with stories from women about the egregious double standard that exists in terms of what is deemed acceptable behavior for men and women. Research validates these anecdotes, offering that women are punished rather than celebrated for being mean. Is there a biological difference, or does outsized ambition just not square with our idea of femininity? Given the context of the 2016 presidential election, let’s examine the perception of women in roles of power, as well as the roles of women adjacent to power, the wives and girlfriends. As the latest scandals from the Republicans demonstrate—be it the Twitter wars between Trump and Cruz, or the National Enquirer story regarding infidelity—we’ll obviously tolerate outrageous behavior from male candidates. The misogyny on display from this side of the aisle, from Trump’s comments to and about female journalists, to the Cruz camp’s attempts to shame Melania Trump, is stomach churning.

But how does this apparently low bar for “presidential behavior” apply to the female candidate who is the most likely nominee for the Democratic Party? What might we hypothesize are the larger cultural perceptions of a woman who seeks power?

Slate tackled this recently in a fascinating piece concerning Hillary’s “likability.” The writer noted that she had “come to believe that saying nice things about Hillary Clinton can be a subversive act.” And noted the disproportionate number of personal attacks on her personality when compared with her male peers. Likability is always an issue for candidates, but we’re well versed in men being able to display power and forcefulness while still finding them likable (think Obama, Reagan, the other Clinton). But women? It’s trickier.

Many female leaders likely find much to relate to in the double bind Hillary finds herself in when it comes to the public’s perception:

Hillary Clinton absolutely cannot express negative emotion in public. If she speaks loudly or gets angry or cries, she risks being seen as bitchy, crazy, dangerous. (When she raised her voice during the 2013 Benghazi Senate committee hearings, the cover of the New York Post blared “NO WONDER BILL’S AFRAID.”) But if Hillary avoids emotions—if she speaks strictly in calm, logical, detached terms—then she is cold, robotic, calculating.

Simply put, male politicians can get angry and they’re being passionate. Female politicians? They’re being bitches and harpies.

Why is this? And what are we asking of our leaders and ourselves? Is it contradictory to say that there really are no Mean Women? Or do our perceptions of female archetypes run so deep as to define Hillary primarily on personality attributes rather than her vision and goals for our country? Is Hillary really mean? Based on what’s trending in and driving our national discourse, it seems that leadership and femininity remain sadly incongruent. This despite study after study showing that qualities such as empathy (a trait more frequently associated with female leaders, and women in general) is one of the most crucial traits for a leader to possess.

As we examine gender roles in leadership, we must recognize the bias that guides our decisions. And now we must ask ourselves, as this campaign continues to spiral into the absurd, are we so myopic as to overlook behavior one wouldn’t tolerate from a nine-year-old in our leaders?

Don’t Let Trump Finish First

Donald Trump continues to perplex the national media and the collective whole of reasonable Americans with his seemingly unstoppable momentum in the race for the 2016 GOP nomination. In the wake of his failure to disavow the support of white supremacist groups and violence at his rallies at the University of Illinois at Chicago and elsewhere, it begs a few questions: Is this really what leadership looks like to some Americans? What’s going on here? Is this the backlash of a middle class who feel genuinely disenfranchised? The recent and alarming rise of xenophobia and frantic nationalism left by the vacuum of leadership from the Republican establishment seems only to be growing. Are we willing to face the consequences of allowing “mean” to define leadership and success in both the private and public sectors? Do we clearly understand the vision and goals of the man who’s bullying his way through our political system in his quest to become our commander in chief? Sadly, the underlying irony may lie in the fact that even his most fervent followers could not explain how we will “Make America great again” in a cohesive, singular vision with realistic and reasonable goals. The reason Trump is eliciting a response is both deeper and more subtle.

The Monster We Know

In the tumultuous 1960s, Hannah Arendt caused national outrage by suggesting that some of the greatest evil the world had ever known boiled down to a Nazi war criminal’s inability to think for himself. Over fifty years later, we are in another time of political and economic upheaval, searching for original thinkers, visionaries, heroes to show us the way. With America preparing to hire its next CEO, we are telegraphing daily to the world our collective values surrounding leadership, power, and the price of success. At the very least, no one would disagree that Donald Trump represents “the ugly American” in its illogical extreme, that boorish, gun-toting, face-punching, self-entitled, narcissistic loudmouth. Is this really who we want to be on the world stage?

We are at a pivotal crossroads: If we blindly follow in the footsteps of mean, that culture will come to define us, crippling our creativity, warping the next generation, and producing demagogues instead of leaders. When these leaders stoke the fears and underlying prejudices of an already angry electorate, the consequences become very real.

Bringing Civility Back

All’s not lost. Accountability, authenticity, relationships, true empathy, and the power of social capital can move us toward a better and brighter future. We as a nation can be both strong and compassionate, both to our fellow Americans as well as our fellow world citizens. Just because the outrageous behavior of characters like Trump takes up all the air in the room, we mustn’t accept his ways as the norm, or believe there is no further “air” to breathe. By owning our actions, clearly communicating alternative scenarios, and cultivating honest, authentic interactions, we begin to reject the cult of personality that rewards poor behavior.

They don’t make the news as often, but they’re there, the nice guys who finish far from last. What does authentic leadership look and feel like in action? Perhaps it’s Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister who publicly demanded a gender-equal cabinet simply “because it’s 2015.” Or Mauricio Macri, the wealthy businessman-turned-president of Argentina who plans to decrease inflation, debt, and the international isolation that has stunted the country for decades. Can we shift our popular and workplace culture to celebrate the true leaders among us? How do we want to define leadership for the generations to follow? What does being an American success really mean?

Regardless of political leanings, we all share the responsibility to own this personal change. It starts now, and it starts with us.

What We Can Learn About Culture from Zenefits

The story of Zenefits’ spectacular growth and downfall is the start-up train wreck du jour that no one can stop watching. An extensive piece in Business Insider last week cataloged once more the lurid details many have been poring over—tequila shots in the office, young employees treating their Arizona outpost as a frat house—and a former sales manager is quoted as saying: “When we were smaller, we could act the way we were acting in the office. I don’t think Parker did a good job of growing up. He let things get out of control. There comes a point where hypergrowth achieves diminishing returns.” The story also outlines some more subtle cultural failures that plagued the start-up over the last year, the pulling back of vacation time, and the clawbacks on sales bonuses that demolished morale. It’s easy to see how the superfast growth—spurred on by Vegas-style VC funding—taxed the company’s resources to the breaking point; but did it have an even more deadly effect on the young company’s culture, destroying it before it had the chance to grow to maturity?

When Aristotle declared that “nature abhors a vacuum,” he was speaking to the way in which nature requires every space to be filled with something, even if only air. The same principle goes for cultures, as they too abhor a vacuum. Organizations growing quickly without a core set of clearly articulated and reinforced values to guide the behaviors necessary for sustaining the growth will experience a cluster of values that saturates the culture anyway. As we saw at Zenefits, this osmosis-like effect draws in values that communicate to everyone “This is the way we do things around here.” And this is why it seemed acceptable for guys to leave their used condoms in the office stairwells.

Weak cultures are those in which little agreement exists and where the effort toward the vision is fragmented and often dissipated through conflicting agendas, blaming, and unclear communications. Another Zenefits employee is quoted in the BI article as saying that a “culture of dishonesty” had emerged, in which industry regulations were ignored and products were mischaracterized to customers. It’s easy to see how such a culture wouldn’t be sustainable.

Strong company cultures are those consciously embedded with only the values that support the organizational vision, where everyone agrees about their importance. In these organizations, you can feel the human energy that flows from this alignment.

In the broadest sense, culture is the personality of the organization, the shared beliefs, and the written and unwritten policies and procedures that determine how the organization and its people behave and solve business problems. Culture provides meaning, direction, and clarity; it is the human glue that mobilizes people to aim for the vision.

To understand an organization’s culture is to remain focused on the five elements that create it and their attendant questions:

  • Shared values: What do we think is important?
  • Beliefs: How do we think things should be done here?
  • Norms: What are the unwritten rules: the dos and the don’ts?
  • Heroes: Who are the people who personify our culture and serve as role models for others?
  • Systems: What do we do to influence people through our written and unwritten policies?

In the end, it all comes down to behaviors: “the way we do things around here.” The answers to these questions need to be put into action as a living, breathing part of the organization’s day-to-day functioning. Zenefits suffered from what is practically a Silicon Valley cliché at this point: a company culture that—infused by too much money and too much growth too fast—went from fun and inspiring to chaotic and dispiriting in a heartbeat.

The gap between the plan and reality of organizational performance is often significant and has been the subject of countless articles and books on motivation, leadership, management skills, and other elements heaped onto the “soft side” pile of organizational performance variables, in other words, the culture. At its most rudimentary, a “hard” strategy may look concrete, with its definitive goals, data, and spreadsheets, but it’s actually an abstraction. It is an idea for the future and has no real existence in the organization or in the marketplace. The organization’s culture, however, is a living, breathing, dynamic force that has a life of its own, operating independently of all plans and projections yet determining the success or failure of those plans.

I am currently a co-investigator of a large study of Fortune 500 CEOs aimed at exploring how these men and women are managing change in a world turned upside down by massive disruptions. One unexpected finding from my interviews is the extent to which they understand the importance of a perfectly “tuned” culture that’s aligned with the organizational transformation these disruptions demand. Our preliminary results, and countless other studies over the past fifteen years, continue to be sobering. They dispel the myth that culture is not a “hard” business issue. Cultures with values, beliefs, norms, heroes, and systems that support high performance significantly impact the financial metrics that matter to most executives.

The importance of company culture cannot be minimized, because a growth vision will fail unless the culture directs and sustains individuals’ behaviors, on a daily basis, in pursuit of strategy. While these intangibles may be far harder to measure than sales volume or return on equity, they are often the key factors in one organization’s competitive advantage over another. The difference between success and failure can often be attributed to a limited set of organizational characteristics. When they are combined, they create culture.

Many organizations emphasize values such as quality, customer service, teamwork, respect for the individual, and innovation—themes with broad appeal that can help people feel they are reaching higher goals for themselves. But all too often these values are communicated merely as organizational spin control in the form of annual reports, recruitment sections of the corporate website, and token discussion at management retreats. They fail to become alive, to be fully infused in the fabric of their culture. And nothing is more dangerous to a company’s survival.

Why Start-Ups Fail: Part Two

Last May, Silicon Valley HR start-up Zenefits was being called a “unicorn” and sending its top salespeople to Vegas for a bacchanal to rival The Wolf of Wall Street. My, how things have changed. Over the last several weeks, as news of compliance failures and employees run amok (between all the sex and drinking in the office, the place was, ironically, an HR nightmare) has surfaced, it’s become clear that Zenefits’ spectacular growth has also been, at least in the short term, its undoing. Last week I discussed several common reasons start-ups like this one suffer, and today I want to explore a few others.

Uncoordinated Transformations

A new firm can maintain healthy expansion only to the extent that its internal mechanisms are seamlessly coordinated. The problems of coordination—such as with the rapid addition of new locations and employees (both huge issues for Zenefits, which added a satellite office and hired hundreds of underqualified new employees over the past year)—are directly proportional to the rate of growth. An organization’s capacity to digest new elements depends on a complex set of organizational processes. It’s difficult to add employees and customers at an extremely fast rate without diminishing the quality of output or running out of cash. Failure to define processes for recruitment, selection, motivation, control systems, and development of values within the organizational culture creates chaos rather than providing the kind of transformation that will allow a new business to thrive. Ultimately, these issues can crush any hope of sustainability. Each person who began with the firm must change as the organization does, entailing a shift that can feel profound. The days of ad hoc management disappear, and managers must learn how to work at a strategically higher and faster level and to define the principles that will govern decisions such as who should be hired and fired. They must learn, quickly, how to create new structures so the company can spend serious money while taking bigger risks for bigger returns. And they often must learn to let go of traditions and established practices in favor of more professional norms. Beer pong at the office might be fine for a company of five, but it’s not hard to imagine why that won’t work for a company of one thousand.

The Fantasy That There’s a Map

Sustainable growth for any entrepreneurial venture requires moving methodically through a series of developmental stages. In one analysis of entrepreneurial growth patterns, 51 percent of the companies progressed sequentially through the expected stages. They followed a traditional linear pattern of development and growth. That’s good news. But the other side of this equation is the bad news: Did firms in the 49 percent that skipped the traditional stages of development one might assume to be necessary end up spiraling out of control and failing? With nearly half the successfully scaled firms not following any model that explains or predicts growth stages, it stands to reason that models accepted and used in the past may be poor predictors of how an organization might successfully scale in the future. A slew of “growth stage models” exists, but most are based on anecdotal observations rather than rigorous research. Warp-speed growth doesn’t follow a tidy linear progression. Analysis of successfully scaled organizations reveals that the stages or patterns of development vary. There is no universal road map that guides scaling. Only the road map that results from managing a unique, comprehensive vision can predict whether a scaled firm will sustain itself.

The Struggle to Maintain the Family

Watching a start-up scale without an adequate vision is a familiar scene: As the need for processes and values takes center stage, old rules disappear, time becomes woefully scarce, work life and personal life merge, and corporate gestures that used to mean one thing suddenly mean the opposite. A warm family atmosphere where everyone knew one another and virtually everything was transparent becomes an environment where silence replaces the easy, informal communications. To compensate for that silence—which is often both unintentional and inevitable—a plethora of ad hoc processes are set in place. Reporting systems, budgets, and performance reviews—often inconsistent in their implementation—attempt to direct employee behavior. When the easy, informal communications channels begin to fade and are replaced by more formal chains of command and departmental silos, people begin to feel overlooked, if not abandoned, by upper management. As the firm launches, the environment feels intimate. Everyone knows who is getting married, having babies, caring for a sick parent. But the venture has to get bigger, add more systems, and implement more controls. What used to happen spontaneously now happens systematically. Through email and voicemail, perhaps even with stringent reporting structures and weekly meetings, everyone may know everyone else’s business—but they no longer know everyone else’s name. The venture that begins as a team or family becomes an impersonal company as it scales. People within will likely remain strangers to one another in spite of the desire and hard work by some to keep the memory and spirit of the family alive. Often, the people who left a big corporation to become part of a start-up realize the firm is evolving into something all-too familiar and distasteful. It will be fascinating to see what Zenefits’ remaining employees do now that the party, quite literally, is over.

Facing the Enemy

If we step back and consider these organizational perils, a picture emerges of the firm’s biggest enemy to survival: its own executive management team. It may be a founding entrepreneur, a COO hired to “bring discipline” to the original vision, or the entire team. These hardworking people have enormous responsibilities for managing the liability of newness, coordinating organizational transformations, and determining which growing pains to address at different times. If correct and timely actions are not taken to address these issues, the team will probably fail at one or another goal. And when they do, there is the probability—however unintended and well meaning—of holding someone or something else accountable.

Why Start-Ups Fail

As beleaguered software company Zenefits continues its spectacular fall from grace with news last week that they are laying off 250 employees, it begs the question: How do these start-ups fall so far so fast? This isn’t the first time a tech start-up has turned toxic seemingly overnight; the stories are myriad and go back to cautionary tales from over a decade ago with companies like Friendster, Napster, WebTV, and others. So why doesn’t Silicon Valley seem to ever learn? How does the Vegas-like atmosphere continue as though nothing’s ever gone wrong? The most comprehensive analysis to date of start-up failure has been done by the Startup Genome Project. Premature Scaling—a project coauthored by Berkeley and Stanford faculty members with Steve Blank—used ten start-up accelerators as contributors and analyzed 3,200 high-growth web/mobile start-ups. They found that within three years, 92 percent of start-ups failed. Of those that failed, 74 percent failed due to premature scaling.

Premature scaling leads to either spending money on marketing, hiring, and other resources before you find a working business model (you acquire users for less than the revenue they bring) or in general spending too fast while failing to secure further financing.

Most start-ups that survive the first few years remain small, but smallness is acceptable only in the rare cases when an entrepreneur or parent organization has patient investors not demanding a significant return in a relatively short period of time; this is almost never the case in today’s high-stakes VC climate. For the overwhelming majority of firms funded by outsiders, staying small is a death knell, indicating that while the organization hasn’t failed yet, it has slim prospects of providing the return originally expected by both the VCs and the founder. In industries like tech, being small is considered as good as being dead.

“There are a hundred reasons for success and a thousand reasons for failure,” a VC once said to me with a sigh the day after he shuttered one of his portfolio companies. I disagree. The reasons for most of the failures I’ve studied may have a thousand variations, but they share a small number of interrelated root causes. And absent a comprehensive vision, there is no way to combat them.

The “I’m Right, the World’s Wrong” Mind-Set

Entrepreneurs of failed start-ups have a tendency to blame others for business problems rather than holding themselves accountable. This is ironic, as these are often the same leaders who like to project the sense of being in control of everything. Nonetheless, they more frequently attribute failure of their own ventures to external factors, such as competitive market conditions and financing problems. This is in contrast to the VCs who fund them, who more frequently attribute failure to internal factors, particularly management inadequacies.

These same entrepreneurs often attribute the poor performance of other firms to internal factors, yet assign their own troubles to external causes over 85 percent of the time. This difference between the lack of accountability entrepreneurs take for failure and what they are actually responsible for can profoundly affect which solutions are pursued when a venture starts to go down. If the assessment points to issues outside the organization, then why bother changing organizational components under management’s control? Some entrepreneurs also seem to think that attributing their problems to external factors is the best strategy for negotiating with a VC. If they can convince the VC that their firm’s problems come from the outside, then the VC will be more likely to help them ride out the storm. But this often backfires. The entrepreneur who blames external factors is often seen as delusional or unwilling to take responsibility by the VC. This chain of passing the buck can hasten the venture’s demise and lead to an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy: when the entrepreneur wrongly blames external factors for the firm’s problems, one crucial external factor—the VC capital—may become its ultimate problem if it stops flowing in.

The Liability of Newness

The most appealing, and perhaps least daring, explanation for failing to scale up and remain sustainable is to attribute it to a phenomenon known as the liability of newness. The risks of newness result from a wide variety of sources, but we almost instinctively point to the invention itself—a new product or service. As we saw with Zenefits, for example, it’s easy to imagine how such an unprecedented approach to manage benefits for small businesses could contribute to the climate of “no rules apply” that has been so disastrous for them. It follows that a company doing something so outside the box would bear some outsize risk just by nature of its products.

And although common sense would indicate that failure is higher for pioneers than for late followers (which is true), it would also lead us to believe intuitively that the causes underlying the liability of newness would be the failure for a new product or service to reach and appeal to its intended audience (which is false). Actually, the risks arising from newness appear to result from a much wider variety of sources that are not weighted on product or market share issues, as most believe. Of course new industries and innovative products take more time to refine, but the ultimate failure of these companies is still most likely to be organizational.

Research again leads us back to senior management as the key factor behind the liability of newness. Zenefits had a great product, as many in the HR field have claimed. But in the process of a major scale up, such as we saw with them, management too often pays little attention to the need for a consciously developed organizational culture. They often create structures that support current—but not future—needs and ignore conflicts regarding evolving and emerging roles within the organization. Most important, management often lacks clarity for how the organization’s vision relates to people’s roles and behaviors. In an overwhelming number of cases, no vision has ever been articulated. It’s reduced to the immature denominator of “get big fast.”

Executive management teams tend to have an outward focus—they’re consumed with ensuring that the new product or service is accepted and gains increasing levels of market share. But the liability of newness blindsides them. They fail to pay sufficient attention to what’s going on within the house. This phenomenon further compounds entrepreneurs’ “I’m Right, the World’s Wrong” tendency to avoid accountability for acknowledging and managing strategic issues within the firm.

What Comes Before a Fall: Lessons from the Growth and Crash of Zenefits

If you have even a passing interest in the tech industry and start-up culture, you’ve certainly heard about the unfolding crisis at formerly golden start-up Zenefits. The company—a producer of web-based software to help small businesses manage their human resources operations—made big news last year when they raised $500 million in one round of funding, at a valuation of $4 billion. The growth of the company over the past couple of years has been astronomical: they went from a total of fifteen employees at the end of 2013 to a reported sixteen hundred late last year. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the growth has caused some serious issues, and CEO and founder Parker Conrad was asked to step down two weeks ago amid scandalous reports of employees being encouraged to cheat on their insurance broker licensing exams (even being given software to help them do so), overimbibing during the workday from company-provided kegs, and having sex in the stairwells of the office building.

Conrad’s resignation from the company allegedly brought tears of relief—not sadness—from beleaguered employees, many of whom are wholly unqualified for the work they’ve been asked to do (a reported 80 percent of Zenefits’ Washington transactions were claimed to be unlicensed). Strangely for a technology company, Zenefits seems to have attempted to solve its woes by adding even more employees to fix problems manually, rather than fully debugging systems when breakdowns took place.

Some of the details of Zenefits’ (and Conrad’s) downfall may be shocking—drinking on the job as a company norm, disregard for regulations in a company that handles something as sensitive as health insurance—but to anyone accustomed to working with entrepreneurs, especially those operating in the high-stakes pressure cooker of Silicon Valley, this outcome is anything but a surprise.

Certainly Zenefits’ rise and crash was helped along by the trend of outrageous VC funding for Silicon Valley start-ups, but the heart of their problems is nothing new. This is simply what happens when there is not an effective, embedded vision at the crucial juncture where scaling meets speed. Zenefits began as a Software as a Service company devoted to helping small businesses combat the onerous red tape of HR issues, health coverage in particular. An honorable enough mission. But as they scaled with lightning speed, they began taking on businesses with hundreds of employees, long before they were equipped with the culture necessary for handling them and the organization’s scaling to that level. Growth became the only imperative, at the cost of quality, employee morale, and even lawful practices.

The current climate in Silicon Valley prizes the “get big fast” mentality, but it’s worth asking, is growth always the ultimate goal? David Packard, the cofounder of Hewlett-Packard (HP), wrote in his memoirs that over the years he and Bill Hewlett had “speculated many times about the optimum size of a company.” They “did not believe that growth was important for its own sake” but eventually concluded that “continuous growth was essential” for the company to remain competitive. One reason growth was a matter of survival was because HP “depended on attracting high-caliber people” who wanted to “align their careers only with a company that offered ample opportunity for personal growth and progress.” Growth for the sake of attracting and keeping great people would become a factor for virtually all firms in technology-driven fields. When the firm introduced “the HP way” in 1957—essentially a manifesto for its future—it emphasized growth “as a measure of strength and a requirement for survival.” While Carly Fiorina trash-talked the original culture and called it an adorable artifact of an older time, she was no paragon of leadership during her tenure there, and the company suffered under her watch.

Most companies understand that growth is essential for survival for the very reasons Packard put so succinctly above. But few know how to reconcile the need for growth with the external and internal pressures to grow very quickly—especially with a group of big-time venture capitalists breathing down one’s neck. Building any large and sustainable corporation requires a considerable organizational transformation rather than a predictable set of linear stages. Building it quickly diminishes the odds that it can weather the growing pains of that transformation, as we can see so clearly in Zenefits’ unraveling. “More businesses die from indigestion than from starvation,” Packard said.

Start-ups are not just large businesses in miniature, and their trajectories do not necessarily point to either size or longevity. Rather than relying on opportunistic adaptation to exploit niche opportunities, their existence depends much more on formulating and implementing ambitious strategies that prepare the firm for the longer term. Put another way, the transition of a fledgling business into a large, well-established corporation requires nothing less than a series of fundamental yet relatively seamless transformations, nearly impossible to pull off in a period of eighteen months or so as Zenefits attempted to do.

Well-articulated visions guide these transformations so they are not experienced as traumatic surprises. Unfortunately, there are relatively few exceptional entrepreneurs with the capacity to conceptualize, articulate, and relentlessly manage with a vision and survive the steep challenges wedded to accelerated growth.

Maybe—just maybe—there’s a degree of maturity, insight, and future focus that’s not just about EBITA growth. Zuckerberg got that in his twenties, and he turned Facebook into a growth machine. The Google guys got it too, in their youth. They were smart enough to turn the reins over to Eric Schmidt, who would successfully guide the firm’s growth.

But perhaps the real lack of maturity rests with shortsighted venture capital firms and boards. They’re the ones who drove the wild growth and then kept Mr. Conrad in place until the shooting star was crashing back to Earth.

Mark Driscoll: The Teflon Mean Man

Mark Driscoll has been back in the news this month after announcing that he will be launching a new megachurch in Phoenix. Perhaps he’s hoping his new hometown is far enough south of his old stomping grounds in Seattle that people won’t care as much about the trail of wreckage he left there. I originally wrote about Driscoll last summer, but with the unstoppable egomaniac back in the limelight, I thought his misdeeds were worth revisiting. Mark Driscoll started a Bible study class in his home in the Wallingford neighborhood of Seattle in 1996. By August of 2014, he’d grown his operation, Mars Hill, into a megachurch, at its height counting thirteen thousand attendees across five states. He preached to a packed crowd at Seattle’s CenturyLink Field (home of the Seahawks), guested on prime-time national television, threw out the first pitch at Mariners’ baseball games, and turned his brand into a franchise. Brand is Driscoll’s word, by the way, not mine. Among the other Mars Hill pastors, he would often refer to himself as “The Brand,” making it crystal clear that Mars Hill would always be about “me in the pulpit holding the Bible.”

His precision branding, matched with his ability to scale his enterprise, would make any business entrepreneur blush with envy.

Driscoll appealed to the young families who showed up to worship with him in jeans and flip-flops, those disenchanted with more established versions of organized Christian movements. Known as the “hipster pastor” with his charismatic, edgy rhetoric, dressed-down blue jeans style, and family of seven, Driscoll knew and embodied his market. He had a reverence for Jesus and a seeming irreverence for everything (and everyone) else. He enjoyed being outrageous, and it worked for him. Yoga, for example, was “demonic.” Increasingly, his writing and sermons took on strong misogynistic overtones: he famously called America a “pussified nation” and claimed that mainstream Christianity characterized Jesus as “an effeminate-looking dude,” and a “neutered and limp-wristed Sky Fairy of pop culture.”

Driscoll declared that anointing a woman as an Episcopal bishop was akin to choosing “a fluffy baby bunny rabbit as their next bishop to lead God’s men.” He joked onstage that wives who denied their husbands oral sex whenever it would please them were sinful, his unique interpretation of a verse from the Song of Solomon.

His outward style charmed many, but behind the scenes, he was often vicious, abusive, and controlling. Those who disagreed with him were shunned by the church, ensuring that other members would know what was in store if they came forward.

Fearful of his influence, many church members felt forced to complain indirectly or through third parties. But Driscoll’s strategy for defusing the discontent was to claim that he wasn’t sure how to respond since his dissenters remained anonymous.

Singularly, disaffected congregants felt powerless against the megachurch, a dynamic Driscoll was counting on. What he underestimated, however, was what would happen when they banded together.

As complaints about Driscoll reached a fever pitch, a large crowd started protesting during Sunday services, holding signs reading “We Are Not Anonymous.” Others started to directly and openly call for Driscoll’s resignation.

After eighteen years of stunning growth at Mars Hill, the groundswell of disgruntled congregants began to drive other churchgoers away. Within months, attendance and giving had plummeted so fast that church elders announced it would have to close several Seattle branches and cut its staff thirty to forty percent.

Driscoll had a knack, like many mean men, for deflecting blame. In 2013, Christian radio host Janet Mefferd accused him of plagiarizing fourteen pages of his book A Call to Resurgence from another preacher. She pushed Driscoll during an interview to be contrite. He apologized but peppered his concession with indignation.

He got in yet more book-related trouble in 2014 when he was accused of misappropriating $200,000 in church funds to get his book Real Marriage on the New York Times bestseller list via shady marketing tactics.

Each new accusation emboldened more critics, and by August 2014, Driscoll was hounded by the new accounts that emerged almost daily of his bullying, abuse, and outrageous behavior with congregants.

Driscoll resigned in October 2014 amid allegations of emotional abusiveness, plagiarism, and misogyny—with congregants fleeing to other houses of worship or losing faith altogether.

Driscoll ultimately wasn’t taken down by the church’s governing body but by those who—in small groups or individually—found their power in numbers and through their collective voice of public dissent. Driscoll’s charisma and normally effective ability to flip he blame to deflect culpability was drowned out beneath the indignation of those he’d harmed.

Sure, there were Christian media heavyweights calling him out for plagiarizing others’ work and his smarmy misogyny. But what brought him down was his arrogance and abusiveness, as well as those current and former followers who shouldered the risk of condemnation from others and stood together and exercised their power.

But his downfall didn’t last. Much like Donald Trump—who has famously claimed that he could shoot a person on the street and not lose voters—there seems to be nothing that can keep Driscoll out of the spotlight for good.

The folksy announcement video about his latest venture is drenched in faux humility about starting a new chapter of his life and “healin’ up” in Phoenix. The legendary bravado is MIA, but for how long? He’s already received very public support from Pastor Robert Morris of Gateway Church, the fourth-largest church in the country, along with a handful of other A-list evangelical names. Time will tell whether Driscoll will actually change any of his ways, but looking at the history, it seems about as likely as Trump naming Megyn Kelly his VP.

The heart of the problem with mean men like Driscoll is that they don’t truly feel they were wrong in the first place. The only thing they did “wrong” was get caught or called out by their peers. Driscoll can tone down his rhetoric and talk about healing and forgiveness all he wants; rest assured, it’s not about contrition—it’s about getting back on top.

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.

Why Culture Should Be at the Center of Your Organizational Vision

When Gordon Bethune took over Continental Airlines in 1994, it was the lowest-ranked airline company in the country. It had been through ten presidents, suffered two bankruptcies, and posted a $200 million loss by the time Bethune stepped in. Needless to say, he had his work cut out for him. With the company on the brink of collapse, Bethune believed that what most urgently needed to be changed was Continental’s culture. In the past, scaling initiatives were usually squelched before getting the chance to come to fruition. But perhaps the most stifling effort to unite the team on behalf of the former management was a nine-inch-thick book of rules—mocked throughout the organization as the “Thou Shalt Not” book and, with a more Orwellian tinge, “The Book.”

The Book was a visible symbol of what was dragging the company down. Continental’s corporate culture had stripped employees of the freedom to make decisions, take initiative, and speak out. So what was Bethune to do? The first order of business was to literally set the book on fire, a ceremonious representation of the end of the company’s “Big Brother” culture. Bethune wanted to show employees that they would now have permission to think for themselves.

Lo and behold, between 1994 and 2001, Bethune led one of the most impressive turnarounds in US corporate history and created an organization that began to not only scale up, but thrive. Until it was taken over in 2010 by United Airlines. Continental was an attractive target to airtarget to airlines driven by consolidation in the industry.

I find many organizations don’t think deeply enough about their culture when they’re in the process of building their vision, choosing instead to focus on things that feel somehow more concrete like revenue goals, growth targets, and being the leading something or other in the industry. Organizational scholars didn’t start paying attention to culture until the beginning of the 1980s, in large part because culture was often experienced as ephemeral, intangible, and unmeasurable. Culture refers to the taken-for-granted values, underlying assumptions, expectations, and definitions of the present in an organization. It represents “the way” and provides a prevailing sense of identity to employees. The culture is the living, breathing—and often invisible—part of what keeps the company aloft. So, as you can imagine, when researchers began to grasp that culture was the crux of organizational performance, it changed everything.

Now, culture is accepted as a critical determinant of success. Company culture isn’t static; it’s a muscle that needs to be exercised, trained, and changed as needed. A healthy company is not stagnant, so naturally a company’s culture has to grow and adapt for the organization to be able to keep moving forward. Without consistent maintenance of its culture, a company is at risk of ending up where the pre-Bethune Continental Airlines was—which is why culture is both a central element of vision itself as well as the framework for building one.

In my research and consulting experiences, I’ve found a glaring omission in organizations that claimed to have a vision but were not using that vision as a management process. The disconnect was apparent: the desired culture was never articulated. Perhaps the organization would go as far as posting a nicely worded statement in the office kitchen or corporate boardroom, but the executive group rarely held one another accountable for ensuring that “the way things are done around here” was consistent with their vision.

We often hear about strong and weak cultures in corporate jargon. But what do those distinctions actually mean? Strong cultures are those that support the organizational vision, those in which everyone agrees about the importance of specific, high-performance values tied to the vision. In these organizations, you can feel the energy and the collective drive for success. Weak cultures, then, are those in which little agreement exists. Like the former culture at Continental, the effort toward the vision is dissipated through conflicting agendas, blaming, and poor communication.

A culture is the human glue that brings people together and mobilizes them toward the vision. In order to understand a company’s culture, try starting with these four questions:

  1. What do we think is important?
  2. How do we think things should be done here?
  3. Who are the people who personify our culture and serve as role models?
  4. What do we do to influence people through our written and unwritten policies?

In the end, it all comes down to behavior—as I said earlier, “the way we things are done around here.” As the company changes, so will the answers to these questions. Nonetheless, the importance of the culture will never diminish.

The Mindset That Will Take You from Vision to Reality

  Do you have a vision for your organization for 2016? If you do, you’ve crossed the first hurdle, but for many organizations I’ve worked with, putting these visions into practice is the more challenging piece of the puzzle. I’ve found that there are three particular areas of emotional dissonance that can seriously impede the vision process. It can cost an organization valuable time—and even lead to overall failure—if each key participant doesn’t embrace these three powerful ideas right from the start:

1. Live in the past, present, and future simultaneously.

Visions work when those who develop them are able to constantly juggle the past, present, and future. A study of firms with rapid, sustained growth found that their most senior executives were able to stay focused on the state of the firm’s desired future. Yet, at the same time, they remained attentive to day-to-day activities that continually reinforced the vision and philosophy guiding their growth (e.g. organizational processes like the structure, culture, and people processes), which created a powerful framework to support the vision itself. With a clear and robust vision as their beacon, these teams also held on to what had worked in the past, modifying or supplementing existing structures and processes, rather than completely replacing old techniques that worked well simply for the sake of starting fresh. These executives had the ability to continually analyze and reconcile the firms’ recent past with their intended future.

2. Acknowledge emotion and disorientation.

Strategic vision depends on the ability to feel one’s way into an intended future. It cannot be developed by looking coldly at words and numbers on pieces of paper or computer screens. In working with executives who truly want to create adaptive, growth-oriented organizations, I’ve found that they begin the process first by looking deep within themselves. They need to know who they are and what they want their organizations to be so that when they articulate their vision to those who work for them, it comes from a conviction that combines their personal need for action with a larger purpose. This signals to themselves and everyone around them that they are open to changing the way they see themselves and the company. For most, this part can be scary as hell.

Leaders who successfully implement their visions don’t simply think about themselves in the context of the future they’re defining. They allow themselves to feel enthusiasm and passion for that future, which reinforces their commitment and determination and that of those around them. This makes it easier to overcome the often-daunting challenges and roadblocks that prevent the vision from becoming a living reality.

Niall FitzGerald, former cochairman of Unilever and cocreator of its vision-driven transformation process, spoke openly about the abyss for him. “You feel anticipation, even deep uneasiness, but the excitement of the vision calls on you to take that leap, then build a bridge for others . . . At Unilever, the bridge we needed to build was all about people: we needed to tap into their passion; we needed them to see their business in entirely new ways; and we needed them to develop very different leadership styles.”

Antony Burgmans, FitzGerald’s counterpart, reflected similarly, “As we launched into our growth strategy, I realized that I didn’t feel right: something was missing . . . What I saw was that even though we had an excellent change strategy, and an inspiring vision, what was really required to bring about change at Unilever was a new culture, a new leadership mindset, and new behaviors.”

In other words, as Burgmans was to discover, what Unilever needed was passion at the top to fuel change throughout the organization. Innovation and risk-taking are necessary for crossing the abyss and bringing an ambitious vision to life.

Conceptualizing a vision raises goal-oriented thinking to the next level—one that may easily induce feelings of inadequacy. Too often, business is a place reserved only for cold, practical reality and dealing with the problems of the present. But visions begin as dreams of the kind of life we want, the things we want to create, or the part of the world we want to change. Embracing them requires a level of vulnerability that many executives find hard to bear.

3. Accept that the process is, by nature, imprecise, frustrating, and sometimes tedious.

The process of developing a vision runs counter to the way most people in organizations normally operate. Visioning cannot occur without starts, stops, and some confusion. Confusion is a natural reaction when confronted with an entirely new way of doing things. This is merely a sign that the brain is trying to process new information. Unfortunately, those in senior-most positions too often relate confusion to a lack of mastery, to not being professional, and hence avoid it at all costs. Acknowledgment that visioning is not a clean, easy undertaking will help overcome resistance to creating a full-range vision.

Just as you would never go run a marathon without any training, nor should you jump into the process of creating a strategic vision without any preparation. Making sure that you and your team know what to expect when heading into this exciting—but often unsettling—process will help set you up for success.

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?

How Myopia Can Stall Your Vision

One reason that many CEOs remain skeptical of the vision process despite copious evidence that it leads to success is because they’ve seen it fail many times before in other organizations they’ve worked for, or perhaps even in their own. So where does the process break down? How can you avoid the pitfalls that keep an organization from successfully implementing a vision? To begin with, let’s consider two data points that seem, at first blush, to be contradictory. One study found that 94 percent of CEOs report “a great deal of discomfort working with the vision process.” A second study, conducted by the Conference Board, polled seven hundred global CEOs and found that, for the past three years, their number one marketplace and management issue was “engaging employees in the vision.” Perhaps what both studies are saying, from the executive perspective, is that “I believe in the need for vision, but I cannot get myself in gear to make it happen.” Connecting the desire to create and implement a vision with the internal energy necessary to get over all the barriers can be immensely frustrating, as I’ve seen over and over again in my work as a management consultant.

I remember a conversation I had at a dinner years ago that has stuck with me ever since. I was seated next to the chief marketing officer of a Fortune 50 company, who confided to me how alone he felt at the top: “We’re hitting our revenue targets, we have obscene share of market in most of the areas in which we operate, but our stock price doesn’t reflect how well we’re doing. The outside world doesn’t understand who we are, why we’re unique, how all our pieces fit together, and what we stand for. On the inside, we’re operating like sixty different silos. My CEO says our vision is to provide shareholder return . . . but that’s no vision; shareholder return is something that we get rewarded for as a result of executing against a proper vision. I’ve got to believe he has some vision of who we are. [long pause] But he can’t unlock his thoughts and feelings about it to us. And if he can’t begin to get us thinking about a real vision, then I’m afraid of what lies ahead.”

When it comes to executing a plan for growth, most CEOs can talk the talk. Vision committees crank out vision statements and post them on their websites and on the walls of conference rooms. Usually, however, this is about as far as the process gets. And that is where the cynicism so many have for the corporate vision takes root. Having a shiny paragraph that articulates a vision is far cry from weaving that vision into the daily fabric of organizational life, which is what makes the difference.

When relatively superficial—what I call myopic—visions are used as a rallying cry for the troops, the vision process isn’t unleashed with the full force and power it’s capable of, and the transformative power of the vision is left untapped.

My experiences with CEOs and executive groups have made me realize that it’s often difficult for them to stretch their thinking toward the future. They’re grounded, realistic people, more drawn to the idea of a mission, which enables them to describe what an organization does, rather than toward a vision, which forces them to describe why their organization does what it does. The former feels comfortably action oriented and masculine, whereas the latter is more thoughtful, vulnerable territory.

My Fortune 50 dinner companion commiserated further: “Just because we’re so obsessed with planning, tinkering with our plans every year, and holding division leaders accountable for achieving their plans, the executive suite has a collective mentality that we’re very strategic. Because the culture has us so focused on planning, they think that’s visionary! As head of marketing, I need to position the corporate brand with a far longer horizon, but I’m clueless how to do that when everyone’s thinking about next year or barely five years out.”

Henry Mintzberg, a management professor at McGill University, found that strategic plans invariably fail when there is no overarching vision driving them. Not only do they fail to motivate those within the company to reach further and be their most innovative, and to pull together disparate parts of an organization, but they also fail as analytic planning documents. (The Rise and Fall of Strategic Planning, Free Press, 1994).

Visions that truly motivate an organization must describe the desired long-term future of the organization, a future that typically feels out of reach in the moment, but also not so fantastic as to seem like a pipe dream. Developing a vision requires imagination, a mental capacity for synthesis, a trust in intuition, and a deep emotional commitment to that desired future. And this is partially why the vision development process is such a leadership balancing act—and another reason why it can be so hard to implement. Visions need to challenge people and evoke feelings that draw them toward wanting to be a part of something greater than themselves.

When a vision is framed as something that is achievable within a set amount of years, particularly less than a decade, then it falls into the terrain of a strategic plan. That is why the overwhelming majority of organizational visions fail to deliver the impact: they are rational, time-bound, and highly impersonal. For vision to inspire, it has to reach—if only ever so slightly—beyond one’s grasp.

Why Having a Clear Vision Is Crucial to Success

I’ve spent lots of time on this blog discussing what makes a bad leader, enumerating all the ways that CEOs can undermine those who report to them by being controlling, manipulative, and undermining. But what about the flip side? What makes an inspiring leader? I’m not talking about charisma, which plenty of mean men possess in spades. Every effective leader I’ve seen in my decades of working as a management consultant has had one huge thing in common that differentiates them from all the others: vision. A confession. Though it’s fairly accepted that vision is a necessary element of leadership now, I didn’t believe in “the vision thing” when it first became a trend in management circles in the 1980s. When the idea first started getting buzz, I suspected the notion of organizational vision might be just another fad. I’m inherently skeptical of any new silver bullet that promises to cure a range of organizational ills, and back then vision was the cure-all du jour. Yet, after a few years as a cynical consultant, I found myself intrigued by the staying power of the idea. However, broad studies analyzing the impact of vision were nonexistent at the time. I still found the idea of vision as a management tool a bit “squishy,” but I didn’t have the data to prove it. A good vision seemed to be something that—similar to the old saying about pornography—one knew when one saw it; the criteria were too vague to be useful.

As a management professor, I decided to take it upon myself to confirm my own suspicions and prove that having a vision would have no noticeable difference on organizational performance. But a year into the first leg of my research project on the impact of vision, I started to see some very surprising data. My hypothesis, I began to realize, was dead wrong. Contrary to my expectations, I found that a well-articulated vision, when implemented throughout an organization, had a profoundly positive impact. Data doesn’t lie, and I found myself converted from skeptic to true believer. As my research continued and I uncovered some of the key characteristics of a successful vision (which I will enumerate in a separate post), I was able to begin testing some of the best-practices results with a range of organizations in the private, nonprofit, and public sectors. Consistently, I found that once senior executives were able to break through the natural barriers of resistance that often bring the process of developing a coherent vision to a screeching halt, they too became believers.

The data is convincing for any CEO invested in the bottom line. Publicly owned firms that use a vision to guide their growth have significantly higher market-cap, top-line, and bottom-line growth in comparison to their competitors who aren’t driven by the vision process. Firms with a vision were twice as profitable as the S&P 500 as a group, and their stock price grew at nearly three times the rate of others. An analysis of average compounded total return found the vision-driven firms earning their investors 17.69 percent more than the S&P 500 overall. A well-conceived and well-implemented vision doesn’t yield this kind of bottom-line performance magically. It results from the ways in which employees are challenged by the vision and remain focused on a clear, yet distant target. These firms had higher productivity per employee, greater levels of employee commitment, increased loyalty to the firm, greater esprit de corps, clearer departmental and/or organizational values, and a greater sense of pride in the organization.

Some executives I meet still regard vision as “squishy,” assuming it will be too difficult to quantify. But my research and experiences over the past decade make a nearly incontrovertible case that the vision process has a profound impact on organizational performance. Better still, that performance is measurable.

So what gives? Why do so many CEOs believe in the need for vision yet fail to follow through on the process to develop and implement one? The reason there is cynicism about “the vision thing” is less about the actual failure of a vision than it is about a leadership failure I call The Believing-Doing Gap: while there’s a lot of talk about vision, few at the helm actually follow through on the work required to bring their vision to life.

The vision process—when fully executed—demands a considerable amount of emotional engagement that I find many executives are ill prepared for. Most become myopic when it comes to vision. A successful vision is not simply a question of crafting a few paragraphs of verbiage that sound snazzy on a website’s home page. A successful vision requires personal passion about how you want to make an impact on the world—whether you run a corporation, a nonprofit, or a government agency. Regardless of the organization’s motive (to make money or provide social good), there must be clarity about what you want to change or create. Without substantive ideas and concrete actions, the process becomes a joke, often backfiring on the leader responsible as others become cynical. As long as the gap between believing and doing persists, no vision will be effective.

So what does a successful vision look like? A guiding vision should be broad enough that it speaks to everyone in the organization, while telling an engaging story that people want to be a part of, one that challenges them and creates a sense of urgency. But the words are not enough. Success comes when the vision becomes embedded in the daily decisions made and actions taken by leaders at all levels of the company. A vision is not merely an extended strategic plan or mission. If a mission is what you do, a vision is why you do it. When we see a vision that is working, guiding an organization to sustained growth, we know that behind it are leaders who are comfortable leading with their hearts as well as their heads.

In the next few weeks, we’ll take a closer look at common pitfalls of the vision process, as well as some secret shortcuts and tension reducers that I’ve used to help executives frame the vision that fits both them and their organizations. I hope to help you hone in on your own vision for the coming year.

The Founder’s Dilemma

From PR nightmare Dov Charney to disgraced biker Lance Armstrong to politically controversial Nancy Brinker (founder of the Susan G. Komen foundation), there is ample evidence that sometimes the most dangerous thing to an organization is the person who created it. So what happens when it’s time for a founder to step away? In my work as a consultant and as the head of the New School’s Tenenbaum Leadership Initiative, I’ve deeply explored the so-called founder’s dilemma both in my research and in my personal experiences. This is the toxic dynamic that emerges when founders don’t move on from the organization they created when there is every indication that they should. Absent a clean break, they invariably create an ambiguous path of succession and decision-making that will hobble even the most talented leaders who follow in their wake. I have seen how pernicious this can become. Predictable organizational problems emerge: internal warfare among colleagues, conflicting decision protocols, hamstrung board members (who often are responsible for allowing this dynamic to occur in the first place). In addition, we see cultural degradation, wariness among funders/investors, and false starts on strategic imperatives. It can harm the long-term viability of the organization and damage its reputation and legacy beyond repair.

Part of the difficulty stems from the ways in which organizations and their founders can develop a fused identity, both from their own perspective and that of the public, creating a vicious cycle. The problem emerges when the needs of the organization and the needs of the founder diverge, such as was the case with Nancy Brinker’s wildly unpopular decision to pull support from Planned Parenthood, a move from which the nonprofit’s reputation has never recovered. Founders must wrestle with how to reshape their identity if they depart, but the anxiety or fear that often keeps founders in place, preventing this identity-reshaping process, is rooted in the assumption that no one will be able to see them as separate from the organization they created, and vice versa.

While my research has focused on founders in nonprofit settings, Noam Wasserman of Harvard Business School looks at their for-profit counterparts. Wasserman believes there are two main motivations that drive founders: wealth and control, and you get one choice since it’s exceedingly rare to achieve and maintain both. It helps to know which camp you’re in, since your motives will help you clarify decisions about new hires, boards, and when you will need to exit the start-up. For example, Bill Gates landed in that rarified space where both were simultaneously possible, but Steve Jobs did not (remember: he was fired by his board the first time around).

The nonprofit sector doesn’t provide the option for wealth, so control is all there is to grab on to, and many founders keep a white-knuckle hold on it for as long as they can. Even those founders who are able to accept that it’s time for them to step down may become anxious as the reality of leaving sets in. Their self-worth can become so enmeshed with their role in the organization that they can’t imagine who they’d be without it. They may agree to leave, only to panic and do anything necessary to get their power back—as Dov Charney has done with American Apparel. Most founders have devoted their lives to building up their companies, and the challenge of how to let go of power over what they’ve created is deeply uncomfortable.

Founders preparing to leave their companies face big questions: “What am I going to do with my life now?” “Who am I now that I no longer have the job I’ve defined myself by?”

Another internal dilemma founders often struggle mightily with—often in isolation—is based on their close psychological attachment to the organization. In their minds, they are the organization, and the reverse, in their minds, is also true. They wonder, “Can my organization survive without me? Will it potentially collapse or encounter a rough patch after I leave?” Or, counterintuitively, they may fear the opposite outcome: “Will I be humiliated if the organization flourishes without me?”

In the most severe cases, when founders cannot resolve the intrapsychic dilemma of whether the company is sustainable without them, I’ve seen them find ways to sabotage the success of their replacements, even if it means putting the organization at risk.

It’s not only the founders who face a dilemma when they choose to move on. Boards of the organizations they govern often have their own. They may fall into a loyalty trap, resisting the idea of acting independently, regardless of their responsibilities. Legacy board members close to the founder often struggle with removing them from strategic and operational influence, even when they know it’s right for the company. The dilemma becomes doing right for the organization versus “right” for their friend and colleague, the founder.

Founders essentially “conceive” of a way to change some part of the world—in Brinker and Armstrong’s case, curing cancer, in Charney’s case, creating fairly operated garment factories. They “give birth” to the organization that will bring this closer to reality, then shepherd it through “adolescent growth.” Often, however, they cannot make a clean break even as their “child” matures and truly no longer needs them. It doesn’t take a Freudian to see why so many founders struggle with attachment issues. But just as a parent must let a child grow up, so must founders often step away from the organizations they created in order for them to thrive, no matter how painful their empty nest syndrome is.

Five Reasons Humility Is Key to Being a Good CEO

One popular conception of the CEO is of someone ubermasculine, dominant, and aggressive. From Elon Musk to Donald Trump to Harvey Weinstein, c-suites throughout the world are littered with examples, all compounding our notion that to be successful, you have to be domineering and even arrogant. Mountains of new evidence suggest otherwise, however, and it’s becoming more accepted that good leaders have empathy. But what about humility? Although in many ways, this quality is at odds with how we think of leaders, in some new leadership research, I’ve come across compelling data* that suggests the ability to be humble is not only helpful to good leaders, but also essential to a company’s bottom line. Here’s why:

1. They Put Collective Goals Above Their Own

 Humble CEOs are often just as ambitious as their megalomaniacal counterparts, but they seek success for the whole organization and yearn to be a part of something greater than themselves. This is in marked contrast to those CEOs who are driven by accumulation of wealth, personal adulation, and celebrity status. Humble CEOs have an awareness of their smallness in the grand scheme of things. Unlike some of the characters we see making headlines for their flagrant abuse of power, these CEOs don’t consider themselves above moral laws and deeply value their connection with the larger community.

2. They Can Take Feedback, Even When It’s Negative

 Arrogant CEOs resist being questioned, and anyone who does so is likely to get serious blowback; it’s the entire reason whistle-blower laws exist. Humble CEOs, on the other hand, place a high value on continuing to learn and improve, and therefore seek an honest understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses. They understand not only the humanity and limitations of others, but also their own. This makes them both more open to new ideas and feedback from others, and less likely to lose perspective and destroy a company because they can’t accept their own fallibility.

3. They Value Their Team

 Humble CEOs are more likely to trust and empower their top management teams. Rather than surrounding themselves with yes-men and yes-women who would never question them (I’m looking at you, Dov Charney) and centralizing their power, humble CEOs know that an organization’s success doesn’t hinge solely on their brilliance. They’ll hire smart, capable, competitive people and then involve them in big decisions, sharing power and credit. Companies run by humble CEOs are also much less likely to have outsize pay disparity within their management structure, something that can cause bitter internal battles and spell disaster for a company.

4. They Make for Balanced Leaders

 CEOs must have certain qualities to attain a position of power. Drive, ambition, and other characteristics from the List of Ten are all likely to show up in the personality makeup of anyone who has risen to the top of an organization. But mean men from Steve Jobs to Lance Armstrong show us what it looks like when these qualities run amok—verbally and psychologically abusing others, throwing temper tantrums, and manipulating those around them—it’s not pretty. But the right amount of humility in a leader can temper these other qualities and help a leader keep his or her emotions in check, as well as keep them from taking outsize risks. Because the good of their organization—not their personal glory—remains their top priority.

5. They Play Well With Others

 Studies have linked employer humility to employee engagement and team integration: two defining characteristics of a company’s long-term health and success. Humble CEOs set an example that others want to follow and engender more goodwill than their bombastic, ruthless counterparts. Because they appropriately value their team members (and don’t overvalue their own contributions), humble CEOs can facilitate mutual trust and discourage infighting. Because they deeply value the organization and everyone in it, they’re able to create a shared vision so that when the company succeeds, everyone feels they had a hand in it.

 As scholars begin to look more carefully at humble CEOs to see if they really make a positive difference in organizational performance as compared with their blowhard counterparts, the emerging data points to “yes.” Not only have executive teams been shown to be more integrated when the CEO is humble, but early indicators from long-term studies are pointing to a significantly greater inclination for these senior teams to deal with market disruption and innovation more effectively.

As more hard data comparing narcissistic and mean CEOs with their humble counterparts makes its way through the research pipeline, rest assured we’ll be sharing it here.

*“Do Humble CEOs Matter? An Examination of CEO Humility and Firm Outcomes” by Amy Y. Ou, David A. Waldman, and Suzanne J. Peterson from the Journal of Management.  

On Greed and Goodness

With Thanksgiving this week, the holiday season—in all its chaotic consumerist glory—is officially upon us. REI made headlines earlier this month for its decision to buck the annual retail race to the bottom that is Black Friday, and instead close its doors on the biggest shopping day of the year. The company has received heaps of praise in the wake of the announcement for the perceived kindness to employees, the social good of encouraging its customers to do something healthy, and also for what is an incredibly savvy marketing move. REI has been purposely public about its decision in online, print, and in-store advertising and via its social media campaign #OptOutside. Many will be watching the numbers carefully to see if REI will benefit, but if it does, will that lessen the fact that it’s doing something good? How comfortably can these two things coexist? Looking for purity of intentions with business is wrongheaded, as most companies can only do good when it’s also good for business. The mean men I’ve discussed on this blog rely on the misapprehension that one must be mean to be effective, when, in fact, study after study shows us that empathy and humility makes leaders more effective.

I’ve noticed a similar conundrum being presented as I follow the increasingly profitable and socially acceptable work of “activist investors” as they’re called: venture capitalists who buy large or controlling interests in a company with the intention to effect big changes within it. The investors—once referred to as “vulture capitalists”—used to suffer from a rather villainous reputation and were feared for the sweeping changes they’d make once they were in the driver’s seat of a corporation. But they’ve undergone something of an image makeover in the past several years, and I’m struck by the success their newer strategies have had in changing corporate behavior. Certainly these investors are motivated by profit rather than goodness, but they’ve also shown us how a powerful outsider can bring to light failures of leadership in unprecedented ways. Carl Icahn, Nelson Peltz, Bill Ackman, Dan Loeb, and others have honed their ability over the past decade to use the media for marshalling empathy from the masses for their own self-serving needs. They announce their large stake in the company’s stock and simultaneously make us feel sorry for the everyday shareholder who is getting screwed by inept management. The activist investor nimbly positions himself as the iconic hero on the white horse, ready to save the company in return for a few board seats. If their argument resonates with shareholders, the stock marches up in price, and they ultimately sell for a profit. Again, their motives are profit driven, but when bad CEOs are ousted, or obvious strategic decisions for the good for the firm are ignored, everyone wins.

Rethinking the role of capitalism—from the retail industry to hedge funds in finance—to make it a more robust system for serving societies is a necessary step in undermining ruthless corporate cultures that remain far too present and are just bad for business. William Greider’s The Soul of Capitalism and Bill McKibben’s Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future are great road maps for moving in this direction, providing solutions where there becomes little collective tolerance for mean men in power. In these tomes, reform appears in a surprising variety of characters, from conservative business managers to small-town civic leaders, social agitators, and labor activists.

American capitalism can and must be aligned more closely with what people want and need in their lives, with what American society needs for a healthy, balanced, and humane future. Increasingly, there’s greater acknowledgment of the flaws in corporate governance and enforcement models, more pushback against an over-the-top and even ruthless retail-industry culture. We may have a long way to go, but the realignment of our business strategies with our human values is making progress—something to be thankful for.

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.

Who’s Allowed to Be Mean? A History

To combat our workplaceepidemic of meanness, we need to confront not only the mean men (and women) themselves but also the surrounding culture that enables them. We often rationalize that anger and meanness are a fixed “mentality,” and, even worse, we let it slide in those who have the privilege of power. Disgraced former congressman Michael Grimm—who was packed off to prison last month—is an excellent example of a man at the top who was allowed to be angry and abusive simply because that’s “just who he is.”  Meanness and rage are what he’s known for, his trademark, and he felt theyought to be respected as such.

Anger itself can become a cheap substitute for character. A mean man like Grimm could think: “If I’m known for being the angry guy, I can just react according to expectations without having to figure out how I really feel, andmy behavior will be excused because, well, that’s who I am.” This happens to be  consistent with psychopathy. Even the subclinical psychopath can be fully stymied when emotions arise. He has little to no capacity to understand how he is feeling, let alone why, so it’s easier to just let the free-emotion fire hose loose and act out.

Looking at the history of workplace culture in the United States tells us something about how we got here. The trajectory  has led us to a place where some are allowed to express their anger, while for others—notably any woman in power—it remains taboo.

1930s: Industrial psychologist Elton Mayo began his study of a novel phenomenon that was emerging: workers were angry, and they were letting it show. While some psychologists were willing to accept that conflict was not only inevitable but also potentially good, Mayo considered a work dispute the collective equivalent of a nervous breakdown, a serious and ideally avoidable malfunction.

In his quest for workplace harmony—which has obvious advantages in terms of reduced labor turnover and time lost in strikes—Mayo and his colleagues made important claims that centered on the understanding and handling of anger at work.

His conclusion was that “worker anger had nothing to do with the job itself.” The idea resonated with managers, as it removed the blame from their shoulders. Mayo’s theory was a crowd-pleaser for the manufacturers who employed the workers and the industrial psychologists who made excuses for them. These human-relations experts (as they were known at the time) claimed in 1938 that critics of capitalism were merely “projecting their own maladjustments upon a conjured monster, the capitalists.” But the basic message was more subtle: workers brought anger to the job from other sources, typically from home.

Harmony required restraint from both managers and employees. If workers were angry not because of the job but because of home life, then an angry response from management was inappropriate. In order to enjoy a superior rationality over emotion-driven employees, it was essential that the manager display consistent restraint.

Mayo posited that “a uniformly benign emotional style was the best managerial tool.” This was probably the greatest shift in thinking that emerged between the two world wars. The gruff, authoritarian boss now took his place alongside the angry, punitive parent in what amounted to a major enlargement of the campaign against anger. Expressing anger—being mean—became one of the leading justifiable causes for being fired. The standards for being a good boss were changing remarkably. These standards didn’t, however, apply to owners and those at the very top.

1940s: Once, an ideal foreman was someone who met production quotas and took charge of technical innovations on the shop floor, but by the forties the foreman was expected to be a human-relations expert who blocked grievances and reduced turnover by managing his own emotions as well as those of his underlings. Bosses were urged to recognize that “the day of the ‘bully’ and ‘slave-driver’ had gone and the day of the ‘gentleman’ and ‘leader’ had arrived.”

Yet ambivalence and hypocrisy remained in this period’s otherwise sweeping attempt to reduce meanness at work and elsewhere. While anger control was expected of workers and internalized by many white-collar managers up the hierarchy, it never quite touched the top executive levels. Executives urged restraint on secretaries without any reciprocity. They sent subordinates to emotion-training sessions, but they didn’t go themselves. At the top, executives could still be bullies, because they were in charge.

1950s: Middle managers were expected to make a particular point of being patient and avoiding aggression; an ability to control their tempers under provocation was paramount. Yet studies from the time showed that top managers were not expected to make being pleasant a priority.

In dealing with grievances or disciplinary cases, restraint was not required of the top ranks.  Aggressiveness and drive—the prerequisites of American gumption—seemed incompatible with reining in one’s spirited emotions. And so the executive temper had to be tolerated, and it was up to the subordinate to learn how to time bad news and to put a favorable gloss on problems in order to minimize conflict.

Sadly, sixty years later, we have not moved forward much from this way of thinking—in other words, meanness and anger are okay for those at the top, but heaven forbid the underlings should push back. But with all of the shifting expectations around work life  that the millennial generation brings with it to the office, could this culture finally be in for an overhaul? Let’s hope so.

How to Create Boundaries with Your Ruthless Boss

During my time at the Austen Riggs Center, I learned much from the experienced clinicians there about dealing with a host of difficult personality types. A recurring theme in my research and interactions with therapists there, and in my consulting work, is the need to create boundaries. It’s healthy to have good boundaries with everyone in our lives, even those we love, but when it comes to having them with an abusive boss, it’s crucial to our survival. Setting boundaries is much easier, however, with your garden-variety passive-aggressive types and narcissists. Mean men have a tendency to see a boundary as a challenge to defeat, at least initially. Because of their tendency to be manipulative, it can be especially hard to hold the line.

You don’t need to announce to your boss your desire to set boundaries—and in many cases you shouldn’t, as it may only raise his defenses, provoking aggression. Boundaries are more about your own behaviors than those of others. Sometimes, nonverbal cues can be extremely useful. When you let certain phone calls roll over to voice mail or wait to respond to e-mails at particular parts of the day, you’re setting boundaries. When you leave the endless heap of work-related Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn notifications for the next day, you’re setting boundaries.

When Disney and Pixar president Ed Catmull began working with Steve Jobs, he picked up quickly on Jobs’s controlling and often confrontational style. But he ended up managing Jobs by intentionally avoiding those situations that had a pattern of leading to conflict. For Catmull, managing Jobs was all about timing, not avoidance. Eventually, he’d get back to Jobs with an answer or other response but not until he believed Jobs’s toxic energy had been depleted on the subject.

Boundaries are especially important when dealing with disordered personalities. Sometimes, active listening is not enough to quell a conflict with the more difficult types. As much as I depend on this technique in my professional work and personal relationships, I’m always intrigued by its failure with those displaying psychopathic traits, as subclinical as they may be.

A consulting client of mine, Aaron,* who definitely fit the profile of a mean man, was in an abusive relationship with his girlfriend, Lisa,* that showed no signs of getting better until she began to set boundaries. Near the end of their relationship, Lisa learned from a counselor that implementing boundaries could bring down Aaron’s rage level. When he acted in an inflammatory manner, she would simply refuse to engage. When he started screaming, she would stay in her own psychological space, barely listening to him while she resumed doing other things. When he tried to start a fight, she would respond with something along the lines of, “I don’t know what triggered this mood you have, but I know that I’m feeling okay.” And then she would leave the room. With her boundary firmly in place, Aaron’s maladaptive way of seeking control lost steam; he got less relief from screaming or being irritating. Her refusal to engage with his irate behavior left him swimming in his own swamp.

Mean men require considerable stimulation in their life. Simply put, they become bored more easily than the rest of us. A mean man often experiences an extreme type of boredom that best be described by the French term ennui: an oppressive boredom that often leads to lethargy. Drama is a mean man’s recipe for staving off ennui, but it requires an audience and perhaps an additional actor or two. As the drama begins, he feels invigorated and alive. Control and manipulation can empower a mean man, especially when he can successfully elicit the emotions of others. Crazy as it may sound, he thrives on this drama, regardless of what it is, as long as he sees it as a result of his actions, a sign that the world revolves around him.

Having the key to a victim’s emotions is just what the mean man needs to feel in control. Manipulation is a form of success for a mean man, and he must create drama in order to achieve it. The more reactions he sees as a result of this drama, the more he craves it, and an addiction begins to grow.

But what happens when the reward for drama stops coming? What if the person who consistently reacts to his wrath chooses to disengage like Lisa did with Aaron? More often than not, the person with psychopathic tendencies, the mean man, will become bored, and we know how intolerable that is for him. If those around him show no emotion, he may decide it’s not worth creating the drama if he gets nothing from it.

This strategy—essentially to become boring to him—is a highly effective way to create a boundary. Employees of a tyrannical manager can set boundaries merely by taking away the usual satisfaction he gets from seeing them afraid and upset. When he sees these reactions dwindle, his power is challenged, and he will soon grow bored.

If you are cursed with a boss like this, you must at some point consider more seriously an exit strategy. While boundaries can “shape” some elements of his repulsive behavior, you will not stop it; you will not change him. Assuming you don’t want to be a leading character in this melodrama, start with boundaries and then determine how to get off the stage with him. Permanently.


*Names have been changed.