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Become a Leader: Kill Your Inner Idiot


Convince underlings to trust you, do your bidding.


If you find it lonely at the top, you probably feel as if those below you don't appreciate the pressure you're under, and the power brokers above you don't care. These feelings of isolation are common among leaders, whether at the pinnacle of the organizational food chain or just at the tiller of a small department.

At the risk of making you feel even worse: If you don't feel connected to your peers, those who report to you, or those to whom you report, it might be time to take stock: The isolation that has you feeling so sorry for yourself is really an identity problem. You might be a victim, all right - but a victim of miscasting, regardless of whether your workplace is as well choreographed as Swan Lake or resembles a fire drill in an ant hill.

In the less than politically correct lexicon of the early twentieth century, philosopher F. H. Bradley said: "It is good to know what a man is, and also what the world takes him for. But you do not understand him until you have learnt how he understands himself." How you cast yourself determines how well you resonate with those around you. The resonance or dissonance that underpins feeling understood depends on how accurately your image of yourself aligns with the image others have of you.

Put another way: People find a complete jerk who freely, publicly, and proudly proclaims himself to be one infinitely more palatable than a complete jerk who casts himself as a saint.

It could be that your actual problem is that nobody understands you the way you want to be understood. Perception misalignment is one of the most common roadblocks to effective leadership, because that lack of understanding really signals a lack of trust. Someone who plays charades or is just plain delusional is rarely considered trustworthy.

Some leaders struggle with identity issues so deep and complex they don't need executive therapy - they need an exorcism. Leaders who do recognize they have real image problems nevertheless often pretend their true personalities remain well hidden behind their public faces. But few, if any, can fool all of the people all of the time.

How is a leader to know which personality/leader type he or she is and thereby present an accurate self-portrait to others?

There are specific leadership types that speak different languages, march to different drummers, and even play out of different rule books. Some of the more sinister types (and therefore needing the most urgent attention) include:

  • The Machiavellian Leader
    The top spot on the pyramid belongs to the Machiavellian by divine right. Don't get between the Machiavellian and his or her prize - not if you ever want to walk or taste food again.

  • The Sadistic Leader
    The sadistic boss loves to hear weeping, wailing, and rending of garments from the cubicle farm. Walk past the Sadist's office bent over from your burden, or the Sadist will pile on more. On the other hand, he or she might pile on more anyway - just for the sheer fun of it.

  • The Masochistic Leader
    Misery loves company. The Masochist needs someone to punish him or her for sins real or imagined, and you're just the person to do it. It's hard to win with this one.

  • The Paranoid Leader
    Everything and everyone is wrapped up in a colossal conspiracy against the Paranoid Leader. Everything you think, say, and do is under suspicion. Play along by checking behind his door, closing the blinds in his office when you enter, and looking under his desk for hidden microphones. He might just begin to trust you -a little.

  • The Godlike Leader
    This boss loves to sit upon the throne of judgment. Never raise your eyes to meet his or her gaze. Bend low -- prostrating yourself is ideal -- when coming into the holy presence. Bring offerings and burn incense unless you want to hear, "You're fired."

  • The Emotionally Needy Leader
    Otherwise known as the "Buddy Boss." This character wants to surgically be joined to your hip. Likes coming to your house for the season finale, the Super Bowl, and Thanksgiving dinner. Brings his jammies (the ones with the feet) to have a slumber party with your kids.

  • The Idiot
    The Idiot is one of the easiest bosses to work for. Essentially clueless. Has no idea how his or her words and actions affect others. Can be easily manipulated if you appear to be deferring to him or her.

Then, there's the Good Leader. The Good Leader is inspirational, hard working and long-suffering; he or she invokes his or her institutional authority to hack a pathway through the bureaucratic jungle where people can do their very best work.

Some would describe TYCO Electronics (TEL) CEO Tom Lynch, Comcast (CMCSA) COO Steve Burke, Disney (DIS) CEO Bob Iger, McDonald's (MCD) CEO James A. Skinner, Apple's (AAPL) Steve Jobs or former Bear Stearns CEO Alan Schwartz in this way.

There are others who would tell a different tale. All poohbahs have bad days. Unfortunately, for most of us, no matter how good we try to be, traces of several leadership types within us combine to form a slightly nefarious under-personality. Plus, our ever-so-clueless inner idiots are always threatening to pop out at the most embarrassing moments.

Bravely willing to accept the truth about ourselves, we must all conduct a self-inventory to determine which type, or which combination of types, most accurately reflects our leadership personality. Note not only how you perceive yourself, but also how others perceive you. If there's a wide gulf between the two, others are likely to understand you better than you understand yourself - and they really won't trust you.

If you enjoy being the company curmudgeon and don't care about how your leadership personality determines your leadership effectiveness - bah, humbug. The more accurate your self-image, the more consistent it will be with the image others have of you, thereby making you more trustworthy.

As people begin to trust you more, you'll be amazed at how much better they'll "understand" you.

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