What becomes a CEO most?

There is so much about corporate leadership that is, and is not, in David Brooks‘ New York Times column this week, “In Praise of Dullness” (and in the research he cites), that it may take me a few posts to react.

Here is the thesis:

[W]arm, flexible, team-oriented and empathetic people are less likely to thrive as C.E.O.’s. Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive.

Brooks cites a study by Steven Kaplan, Mark Klebanov and Morten Sorensen called “Which C.E.O. Characteristics and Abilities Matter?” Brooks says they relied on detailed personality assessments of 316 C.E.O.’s and measured their companies’ performances. According to Brooks, they found that strong people skills, enthusiasm, and strong communications do not correlate with being a good C.E.O. Rather, “The traits that correlated most powerfully with success were attention to detail, persistence, efficiency, analytic thoroughness and the ability to work long hours.”

Agreed, and maybe, obvious. But dissing enthusiasm and communications would seem to run counter with one of my basic premises, that solid and repeated communications from leadership about mission, vision, values and culture can help a business do better in both the ethical and the economic sense.

Well, let me deal with Brooks’ view first, in this post, and later turn to the research itself. I think Brooks – with whom I frequently agree, much to my surprise — gets a little lost in the midst of trying to relate to this research.

Says Brooks:

The market seems to want C.E.O.’s to offer a clear direction for their companies. There’s a tension between being resolute and being flexible. The research suggests it’s more important to be resolute, even at the cost of some flexibility.

OK, number 1, how does the market, much less your employees, know your clear direction if you cannot articulate what that direction is and why it’s worth following. And like any other important message you have to market, you have to sell it like soap — believability and memory go up with repetition. And then believability and memory go up with repetition. Score one for communication skills.

Number 2, did Brooks miss every other business writer since, I dunno, 1980, talk about the need for business leadership to remain nimble in the face of accelerating change. Or what we call, “flexibility.”

So the good business leadership formula here is being resolute and flexible: resolute on your goals, resolute on the vision, AND resolute about getting there ethically — and then be flexible about strategy and tactics.

Says Brooks:

The second thing the market seems to want from leaders is a relentless and somewhat mind-numbing commitment to incremental efficiency gains…. The methodical executives at successful companies just make the same old four-door sedan, but they make it better and better.

Sometimes. But that “incremental improvement” strategy worked out great for GM and Chrysler.  And at the moment, it is also going great guns for the newspaper business. Not.

Says Brooks:

The C.E.O.’s that are most likely to succeed are humble, diffident, relentless and a bit unidimensional. They are often not the most exciting people to be around.

So explain Warren Buffet, Jack Welch, Lee Iacocca (who saved Chrysler’s bacon last bailout), and a lot of dynamic men and women I have known who have led fast growth companies. And BTW, Iacocca’s list of 9 valued leadership traits — which I admit is hindered by his requirement that they all being with the letter “c” — includes “communications” and “charisma.”  (C is also for cookie, and that’s good enough for me.)

In summary, this column points us to some very interesting research, but it’s not one of Brooks’ best efforts.

More to the point, I think we need to conclude that dynamic, communicating, exciting leadership can’t be all bad. Granted, you need to walk the walk as well as talk the talk. And maybe if you have to choose one, choose the walk.

But myself, I think if you want your teams to walk in the same direction as you, you’d better show them the way and invite them along. More than once. Audibly.