September 2006 Insight Newsletter


Tolerating “Difficult” Talented Leaders?

A recent seminar by highly respected expert Professor Jeffrey Gandz of Ivey business school highlighted the critical need that organizations face today for recruiting and retaining highly talented leaders. He is not alone in repeatedly referring to such individuals as “difficult.” We all chuckled knowingly because we’ve all seen it.

The myth that we must tolerate difficult leaders because of their talent is flawed. Of course we want strong individuals with clear opinions and the unshakable persistence to drive them into practice. Nothing in that suggests they must drive people crazy doing it.

But what does “difficult” really tell us? It means one of two things. Some organizations perceive these talented people as difficult and are so inflexible as to stifle such creativity in leadership to the point where these individuals leave. The alternative? The individual actually is difficult and we tolerate such would-be leaders inhumanity to others in order to encourage them to ride rough-shod over opposition, ignoring valid points others may be making. Either way we need to identify the nature of the problem clearly and the approach needs to change.

Humans tend to err toward being black and white on issues. This is a good example of how we must incorporate both in order to succeed. First, we need to tolerate the efforts of creative leaders to overturn organizational sacred cows because we need them to change things. We can’t let ingrained corporate habits dominate or improvements will never be possible. Every improvement involves change that almost always feels uncomfortable.

Second, how leaders do it is another matter. In the heroic model, leaders shout and threaten in order to drive home their points. Giving orders predominates. This may be tolerable in emergencies. Perhaps for this reason, we tend to characterize every day as a series of crises. Most of the time we’re kidding ourselves. Few things are that earth-shaking, but characterizing them that way provides an excuse – no time to do things carefully. It seems to justify shortcuts and less civil behavior.

In reality, the best leaders take the time to explain, support people through change and ensure that their objectives fit into the clear requirements of situations they deal with so the people support them in return. Abraham Lincoln once commented, “If I had eight hours to cut down a tree, I’d spend seven hours sharpening the axe.” Getting people ready for change is almost certainly more important than the change itself.

Today we see many excellent strategies fail for lack of effective execution. Leaders bemoan the fact there is resistance from their organizations. Whose fault is that? Who must take responsibility for changing it? What is the job of a leader if not to rally disorganized individuals into a powerful, committed, focused force? To imagine that a “difficult” so-called leader can achieve this by upsetting everyone is the height of fantasy.

It’s not that command-style leadership is dead. As noted, we need leaders to be hard-driving. It takes strong will to convince large organizations to change. But command leadership is not sufficient in today’s complex situations. We have to add in the skills of motivating and engaging teamwork to a far greater degree than in the past. This is a challenge to include “both/and,” not make it “either/or.”

We are beginning to ask senior leaders to take a more in-depth, complex approach to managing their organizations. It won’t happen overnight. Repeated reviews of the core challenges from different perspectives will help. The key is to support driving hard toward change, but using humane, positive, supportive methods that allow people time and give them help to become engaged. Speed is always cited as the biggest barrier. We need everything yesterday. It takes considerable courage on the part of senior executives to ensure the necessary preparation is provided for people. When they do that, it turns out that change can happen almost instantaneously. The “right strategy” for any change must always include a “right strategy for people.”

Additional Views of Heroic Flaws

More is being written today than ever before on these issues. When we look at most organizations though, we might wonder if anyone is reading. It can help to encourage people to pay attention to the nuances of these issues. For example Clearly there are those who seem to disagree, such as:, where I believe the misunderstanding is largely semantic. Debate is healthy. We can see persistent, committed individuals as heroic in meeting obstacles without buying the entire heroic leadership model of command-and-control. It’s easy to see, however, how words can create confusion.

One of the better descriptions of the new “post-heroic” model as it’s being called is this: