True Leadership Comes From Actions

Published in the San Diego Union-Tribune, March 28, 2016

I recently went for my annual physical. The good news is that he thinks I can live another five or six weeks; the bad news is that his “doctor’s scale” (the one with the ruler that extends over your head and measures height) is completely out of whack. It seems to indicate that I am short. The calibrations must be wrong, and I am considering suing the manufacturer.

There are countless studies showing that taller people get better jobs, higher wages, bigger opportunities, are considered better leaders, etc. And the latest study – out of the University of California Berkeley and UC Santa Barbara by Cameron Anderson – documents this behavior as well.

Leadership is now being correlated to how buff you are – but only in men. For men, “physical formidability” correlates to higher status, Anderson says.

In the same study, when shown sets of women, there was no correlation between perceived strength and leadership qualities. But in terms of appearance – attractiveness – well, many women know that bias.

In my case, short, coupled with only a three-pack, spells doom if I ever have to get a real job.

Leadership – the subject has been studied since Plato and Confucius. It is a complex and curious topic, writes Joshua Rothman of The New Yorker. In 1922, Max Weber distinguished between “charismatic” leadership and “bureaucratic” leadership. (Methinks this is a discussion going on in the current political climate.) Rothman writes that modern rulers are supposed to be emotionally detached – better to be “rational” in their decision-making.

Is it possible to detect leaders and leadership in advance of hiring them? The Anderson study suggests yes and that one way is to see what a man can bench press. In contrast, large companies often look for the “messiah” figure – the Moses to lead them out of the desert. And when the board finds they have feet of clay and can’t get across the Red Sea, they fire them with a huge severance package. History suggests that Moses got the golden calf, not the golden parachute.

Rothman cites the distinction between the designated leader – “often a broad-shouldered white guy with a power tie” and the actual “emergent” leaders. And sure enough, research shows that workplaces often function well because of unrecognized emergent leaders – many of them women. This should come as no shock to 52 percent of the population.

This whole subject taps into female-founded startups getting funded, women being chief executives and the equal-pay-for-equal-work mantra being discussed in the current political climate.

Being a leader is not an identity, but rather a set of actions. “I am a pipe fitter, I fix the pipes.” In other words, I lead because I do something. You can’t just be a “leader” – it is not a job description.

Rothman says Gautam Makunda, assistant professor at Harvard Business School, looks at leadership a bit differently. Makunda says that in the military, the candidate pool is heavily filtered, meaning that every general has gone through the same set of hoops during his career. But in Congress, “you can vault in as a businessperson or a veteran or the scion of a political family.”

(Note: Notwithstanding the above, there is very little “vaulting” for short people.)

So, Makunda concludes that in the military, leaders end up being highly interchangeable, while in the less filtered organizations, individual variation will be greater. “By this logic, generals, but not members of Congress, will tend to be more or less equally competent,” he says.

There is an entire leadership industry with countless books, webinars, seminars and conferences ad nauseam. It fascinates all of us – and at the same time remains obscure and opaque. We know that leaders “elevate, empower and inspire” – we just don’t have a very solid way to know how to find the right person to do those things. In the final analysis, Rothman concludes that leaders are storytellers – who don’t always know how the story ends.

I am co-founding a new concept with two pals – they are both over 6 feet tall and have some “physicality.” I think we should have no trouble getting funding.

Rule No. 455

Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.


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