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Michael Maccoby
Scholar

Michael Maccoby

Michael Maccoby is an anthropologist and psychoanalyst globally recognized as an expert on leadership. He is the author of The Leaders We Need, And What Makes Us Follow.

Steve Jobs Is Not Dull: Why Context Matters in CEO Success

What type of CEO personality is correlated with company success? Different psychologists report different findings, all advertised as based on careful research. Daniel Goleman writes that success depends on emotional intelligence. Jim Collins describes the ideal C.E.O as humble, self-effacing, diligent, precise and fastidious. Recently, New York Times columnist David Brooks reports a new study, consistent with Collins' findings, that claims "people skills correlate loosely or not at all with being a good C.E.O."

All of these studies are misleading because they do not take account of context. Some personality traits are universally shared by successful people in any field, especially emotional stability and conscientiousness, which psychologists have shown to be genetically determined.
But other personality traits correlated with business success depend on the type of business and sometimes where it is in its life cycle from innovative start-up to established company.

Jack Welch, a very successful C.E.O. who no one ever called humble or self-effacing wrote in his book, Winning, that when he picked a leader for a commodity business, he chose the obsessive type who was "a master of discipline", the type Collins celebrates, but when he picked a C.E.O. for a innovative and risky business, he chose a "person who hated the nuts and bolts of management...But he sure had the guts and vision to place the big bets."

Welch's insights are consistent with my own research. In my book, Narcissistic Leaders, Who Succeeds and Who Fails, that successful leaders of innovative entrepreneurial companies, at least in the early phases of their life cycle, are larger-than-life self-promoting productive narcissists like Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. These are people who want to change the way we work and live. They may not have people skills. Some are arrogant and abrasive. But they are not dull. The studies Brooks cites were all done before the current economic crisis. Some of the companies Collins promotes as models, like Circuit City and Fannie Mae, have not fared well in tough times.

The CEOs I've studied, both the visionary narcissists and the systematic obsessives, who were best able to lead change in challenging times shared four qualities I call Strategic Intelligence: foresight, partnering, visioning, and motivating. They had a deep knowledge of their business and were in touch with the global market, technology and social trends that threatened or provided opportunities for their business. They partnered with others who complemented their skills and personality. With their team, they developed a vision of a positive future. They recognized that it's better to create their future than just trying to predict it. And they were able to communicate this vision in a compelling and inspiring way, to persuade the talented people in their organization to make it happen.

It's true that these qualities are less important for business leaders who don't run for election. Brooks claims that charisma, charm and personal skills work in politics, not business. But the presidents who were most effective in leading change---Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan---demonstrated these same qualities of Strategic Intelligence. And so does Barack Obama.

By Michael Maccoby

 |  May 22, 2009; 12:53 PM ET
Category:  Leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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For the skeptics about psychological research and the five personality traits that have shown to be significantly inherited, see, for example, McCrae, R.R. and Costa, P.T. (1997) "Personality trait structure as a human universal", American Psychologist, 52, 509-516.
I judge Obama to have Strategic Intelligence because he based his very effective campaign (an example of successful management) on the need for this nation to prepare for the future. He has partnered with experts in economics, technology and the military who complement his abilities. He has a systemic vision of a country that provides healthcare for all and prepare Americans to compete successfully in the global economy. And he has shown brilliance in motivating the country (if not the Republicans) to realize his vision. Recognizing that a leader has Strategic Intelligence does not imply that you agree with him.

Posted by: MichaelMaccoby | May 26, 2009 11:53 AM
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Judithod misses an important point, our President is not responsible for managing a corporation he's responsible for managing a democracy which requires compromise and caution. We just had an eight year demonstration of the application of corporate style management to a democracy. Result absolute disaster. In fact not even the corporations did so well did they?

Posted by: rshea2 | May 25, 2009 5:51 PM
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JHBYER wrote:
"The criticism of Jobs being in the headline naively misses the point of headlines."

The headline has singled out Steve Jobs. A reader, led by that headline, may not be faulted for expecting a little more than just quarter of a sentence (if that) dedicated to Mr. Jobs; say a whole sentence perhaps would have done the piece a better justice. : )

Silliness aside, the fact remains, the headline writer chose to spotlight just one person instead of, say, "Successful CEO's Are Not Dull: Why Context Matters in CEO Success." Why he chose to headline Mr. Jobs over the others, like Mr. Gates etc. is probably worthy of an article of its own. I may have a few inclinations why, but I'll keep them to myself.

Meanwhile, calling it out for what it is, a click-bait (also known in other less flattering words), does not make one naive. The same may not be said for the person raising the naive-flag though, kind of ironic--that.

Posted by: krquet | May 25, 2009 4:57 PM
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Obama possesses "strategic intelligence"? How has he demonstrated this? He came into office with no governing experience and an unwieldy record of voting "present" on controversial issues. That he doesn't understand how to say firmly "yes" or "no" is evidenced by his nuanced speeches, which try to pander equally to the left, right, and center. His latest Gitmo speech is a prime example of this. To date, Obama continues in campaign mode, grinning and waving to his fans, while letting his lieutenants in Congress write the stimulus, energy, and healthcare bills. If the latter fail, Obama can point to his "clean hands." In contrast, the CEOs mentioned in this article make decisions and take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. Obama is an adolescent attempting to do a man's job.

Posted by: judithod | May 25, 2009 12:08 PM
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Obama possesses "strategic intelligence"? How has he demonstrated this? He came into office with no governing experience and an unwieldy record of voting "present" on controversial issues. That he doesn't understand how to say firmly "yes" or "no" is evidenced by his nuanced speeches, which try to pander equally to the left, right, and center. His latest Gitmo speech is a prime example of this. To date, Obama continues in campaign mode, grinning and waving to his fans, while letting his lieutenants in Congress write the stimulus, energy, and healthcare bills. If the latter fail, Obama can point to his "clean hands." In contrast, the CEOs mentioned in this article make decisions and take responsibility for the consequences of those decisions. Obama is an adolescent attempting to do a man's job.

Posted by: judithod | May 25, 2009 12:06 PM
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Mr. Maccoby provides a needed corrective to the David Brooks article, which didn't allow comments. Maccoby is right that Brooks quoted dated studies, while providing no real world examples to sustain his thesis, examples like Maccoby does provide in Steve Jobs.

The criticism of Jobs being in the headline naively misses the point of headlines.

As for Maccoby's essay being "disappointing" that's a function of unrealistic expectations. This forum obviously doesn't allow writers the space to analyze in depth.

Posted by: jhbyer | May 25, 2009 4:45 AM
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This was my first impression of your work; with the "Scholar" heading next to your name I may have built my expectations even higher than the mention of Steve Jobs did.

Was that ever a disappointment. Please, for your own good - and for future reference, don't name drop someone like this without some substantive insight. Being objective in what you do write goes a long way too.

"They recognized that it's better to create their future than just trying to predict it." Not exactly earth shattering, either.

Posted by: WorldNet | May 24, 2009 6:35 PM
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You write that "Some personality traits are universally shared by successful people in any field, especially emotional stability and conscientiousness, which psychologists have shown to be genetically determined." How many psychologists? Two? Friends of yours, perhaps? To posit that "emotional stability and conscientiousness are genetically determined" is not correct.

Posted by: ivorynicky | May 24, 2009 11:24 AM
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Your usage of Steve Jobs in your headline to attract the clicks, yet your solitary mentioning of him in this article in a generalised lump with other tech-CEOs thrown in as "larger-than-life self-promoting productive narcissists" hardly offer any insight to the readers, fluff up the article (was it even necessary to publish it?), and severely undermine you as a credible analyst or even a writer.

Posted by: krquet | May 24, 2009 6:52 AM
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I really don't think it's accurate to say that psychologists have proven anything to be genetically determined. If you believe this, then you're obviously selective with the research you pay attention to.

Posted by: tracerbulletprivateye | May 24, 2009 3:23 AM
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