Why Leaders Are Often Lunatics

The new movie now headed to your local theater—Steve Jobs—sets out to make the point that the man who created arguably the greatest company in the world was slightly off his rocker. Or perhaps he was a nasty, crazy man in disguise.

Rather than indulging in that pointless debate, let’s step back and look at a broader and more meaningful issue: virtually all great leaders are in fact lunatics in part.

It is the very oddity of their thinking and personalities that lets them see and develop what passes the rest of us by. The fact is, I have never met nor seen a perfectly normal person rise to the ranks of leadership greatness. And one of the largest research studies on the traits of effective leaders, known as “The Big Five,” concludes that lunatic leaders may be unavoidable and even desirable. The study identified neuroticism (characterized by moodiness, jealousy, and emotional reactivity) as one of the top traits of effective leaders.

Jobs didn’t use deodorant, trusted hardly anyone, and abused staff and family alike, but in spite of zero warm and fuzzy traits or instincts, he created a team driven to build near-perfect products and to adore the nutcase in the CEO’s office.

Traditional Harvard Business School thinking will tell us that this is impossible, that such a leader could not succeed, which reveals just how cookie-cutter blind conventional wisdom can be. In case after case, we are led to believe that great leaders are always kind and generous, but in truth they are often the polar opposite. This means they must use their “lunacy” as a way to evoke team passion for a unique view of the world. They must turn what appears on the surface to be a negative into a driving force for enterprise-wide inspiration.

Even looking back at the lions of 20th-century business—those extraordinary leaders such as Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, and Walt Disney—we see that they were cuckoo birds who a) inspired people to exceed their natural capabilities in pursuit of noble goals, and b) veered wildly off the tracks at various stages in their careers.

I recently watched a president of a chemical company, Paul, stun his team with a 10-minute mini-tirade. They walked into the meeting room feeling really good. They thought they had succeeded over the past 2 months in creating great collaboration and ideas new products. He completely disagreed.

“We failed. We didn’t raise the bar high enough.” For 10 minutes, over and over, at 8 a.m. He didn’t say it calmly or politely as the idealized Emotionally Intelligent leader. He said it emotionally, without regard for upsetting his team. They didn’t even need their morning coffee to wake up. As I sat there looking at the bewildered looks in the eyes around the table, I realized he had crossed the line. And it was good!

This was his form of personal lunacy that drove the team, because in spite of his tirades, he had a way of being inspirational. Three months later they did raise the bar. Great leadership, we understand, is not black and white.

Understanding this fusion—and channeling it toward the creation and maintenance of exceptional teams—is what my firm and I work at with companies across the world. We don’t expect storybook perfection in leaders. Quite the contrary: we anticipate the quirkiness, yes at times the lunacy, and work with the powerful collaboration tool of Swing to have it serve as a turbo charger as opposed to a demeaning and dispiriting menace.

Anything else or less amounts to denying reality.

Ultimately, the measure of your leadership is how your team responds.

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