Leaders: Do Nice Guys Finish Last?

What is the special sauce driving today’s most successful corporate leaders? So much has been written about the prickly personalities of the late Steve Jobs of Apple, Elon Musk of Tesla and SpaceX, and Ferdinand Piech, the former Volkswagen Chairman, which might leave you with the impression that unpleasantness is an essential ingredient to leadership success. Jack Ma has been wildly successful, while even from his earliest days he generously gave equity to all of the high school students working with him, “bringing everyone along.”

All these successful leaders come from different backgrounds, cultures, education, and experiences, while also displaying equally varied personalities and interpersonal styles. To paraphrase former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s famous quip: we can’t easily define great leadership, but we surely know what it is when we see it!
As I see it, no matter how different in personality, successful leaders possess five common attributes that underlie their accomplishments, often displaying them despite personality quirks, as is the case with Jobs, Musk, and Piech.

Purpose & Passion: All great leaders pursue a purpose with genuine passion.
That value creation might be the development of a great product, an exciting innovation, or a unique service which excites their imagination and creativity. For Steve Jobs, that involved an abiding passion to create groundbreaking products—the Apple II (1977), the first Macintosh computer (1984), the radically designed iMac (1998), the personal computer as the digital hub for music, video, photos, content (2000), the iPod (2001), the iPhone (2007), and finally the iPad (2010). It was in the passion with which he pursued this purpose of combining creativity and technology, and art and engineering, that Jobs became a giant of his time able to inspire millions of consumers, shareholders, employees, and peers.

Vision: Leaders are able to realize ambitions and excite others to join them in reaching beyond what might seem like insurmountable odds by promoting an infectious vision of the future.
For Tesla’s Elon Musk, in overcoming a difficult childhood he was driven by three things: a future enabled by the Internet (co-founder of PayPal) ); expanding the horizons of space exploration (founder of SpaceX) and developing technologies which could help overcome environmental degradation and climate change (Tesla Motors—the first commercially successful start-up U.S. carmaker in 113 years). Musk’s vision of a technology-enabled, post-hydrocarbon world, pushing the extra-terrestrial boundaries of exploration undeterred by the fear of failure or extraordinary odds, has attracted followers to accept the discomfort of pushing oneself harder than imaginable to accomplish things beyond what most think possible.

Talent & Persistence: No amount of purpose, passion or vision, however noble and inspiring, can drive success if not imbued with genuine talent and dogged persistence.
Unlike Jobs and Musk, Ferdinand Piech grew up a privileged scion of the Porsche family, learning at the side of his famous grandfather and uncle. Demanding and mercurial, Piech had visions for Porsche and then Volkswagen —rescuing it from near bankruptcy to among the world’s largest carmakers—was built on extraordinary engineering talent and seemingly insufferable attention to technical excellence, dizzying detail and unrelenting precision.
It so happens that Jobs, Musk, and Piech are known for being personally difficult, even disagreeable individuals. In his biography of Jobs, Walter Isaacson credits the late leader’s success with infusing Apple employees with “an abiding passion to create groundbreaking products and an ability to accomplish the impossible.”

One of Musk’s former associates asserted that in the discomfort of Musk pushing himself and his employees harder than anyone else, his team was able to grow in ways otherwise deemed impossible. And so it was with Piech, whose success was driven by his insistence on delivering the world’s best technology, often no matter the cost, even if alienating scores of people along the way. This leadership formula—passionate, purposeful pursuit of a compelling vision, driven by talent and dogged persistence—is not some modern alchemy.

Posted in Aerospace and Defense, Automotive, Business Transformation, Leadership.