I once worked for a CEO who was one of the best salespeople I ever met, and one of the hardest working, most dedicated executives I've ever known.
He was also a mess.
His personal life was usually in ruins, due in large part to the fanatical dedication he had to the organization he started. In addition to his messy personal life, he also embodied some of the worst traits you read about in all of those "How to Not Be a Horrible Boss" posts.
He held a firm and often vocalized belief that he was the smartest person in the room.
He used incredibly harsh language to describe people who didn't meet his standards--though those standards were, at best, vague and hard to define.
I was hired by a Board of Directors to help repair some of the damage that existed due to this view of 'leadership," and the root cause of all of the chaos and misery in this organization became apparent pretty quickly:
- The CEO believed that his star shone the brightest if the stars around him were dimmer.
- The CEO believed that he, and he alone, was the reason why the organization would ultimately succeed or fail.
Regarding the first point, after reviewing the personnel files of existing employees as well as applicants who weren't hired, the CEO had a clear strategy to dim the stars around him.
That strategy was to hire employees who weren't necessarily qualified to do the job they were doing.
However, the CEO paid these employees market-rate salaries, or better.
Hiring underqualified employees and then giving them titles and salaries that would be impossible to find at any other job allows a boss to do two things:
- Treat employees like crap, knowing that they depend on a paycheck that would be difficult, if not impossible, to find elsewhere.
- Position yourself to be the hero and the martyr, the "leader" who has to step in and save the day, and work twice as long to do it--a fact that you will never let your employees forget.
It was the worst, most damaging approach to leadership I've ever seen, before or since. It created an environment of pure misery--one where no one's star shone at all, including the CEO's.
And the belief that success is the result of one individual's ability or skill is just ridiculous.
No one succeeds alone.
We worship icons like Steve Jobs, using a narrative that at times makes it sound like he single-handedly built and later rescued Apple.
Steve Jobs was good at many things, but no one is a savior.
And any time any leader or aspiring leader says that he or she alone is the only answer, the only one who can make things right, we should remember the words of The Jungle Book:
"For the strength of the pack is the wolf,
and the strength of the wolf is the pack."
Leadership in any organization, group, or unit of people is never about the strength of one person.
It's about our ability to get the best out of each other.
Because no matter how brightly it shines, a sky with just one star makes for a pretty dark night.