In Silicon Valley, the hunt is always on for the next Steve Jobs. But not all arrogant, bold, and creative startup founders are created equally--so why do we assume that the college dropout with a vision is going to be able to inspire people like the Apple co-founder did?

That's because we get too wrapped up in the "hero narrative" of a leader, writes Joshua Rothman in this week's issue of The New Yorker. We expect the confident figure to be able to save us all. "Our faith in the value of leadership is durable--it survives, again and again, our disappointment with actual leaders," he writes. In fact, our idolization of great leaders may actually be causing us to pick leaders who we think can fulfill the "hero" role, rather than the people who are actually qualified to lead. 

Rothman says that while people have been studying leadership for a long time, even experts are no closer to predicting what kind of people will make extraordinary leaders  Rothman points to the writings of Joseph Rost, a professor of leadership studies at the University of San Diego who passed away in 2010. Rost, who spent his career studying leadership books from the past 100 years, found that many of the books often contained contradictory advice on how to be a good leader: for example, that they should "be simultaneously decisive and flexible, or visionary and open-minded." 

Rather, holding leaders to this impossible standard may cause us to overlook the qualified insider in favor of the heroic outsider. The outsider has charisma, confidence, and a seemingly pearly-white record of success that makes them "intrinsically followable, bureaucracy be damned." Sometimes, the outsider does live up to these high expectations--but because they don't have as much experience as the insider, there's also a good chance that they will fail..

Meanwhile, while the insider may seem like a good leader, people inside the company can probably point to instances where he or she failed--what means that the insider won't fail again? 

More often than not, what makes the really great leaders great is simply that they take on the role of the leader more often. It allows him or her to "master the leadership process."

Take Jobs. The Apple co-founder was a notorious micromanager. Jobs was the one in charge of soliciting goals from staff each year, and before big meetings, always assigned someone to be in charge of each item on the agenda. "Although Jobs had considerable charisma, his real edge was his thoughtful involvement in every step of an unusually expansive leadership process," Rothman writes.

 

Published on: Feb 25, 2016