Heroes and Their Committee of Selves

Excerpted from , by Justin Menkes

To master the process of soliciting the best performance from their people, leaders must first understand one essential truth about human psychology: that every human being is capable of both mediocrity and greatness. We assume that there is one person in each body, but each of us is more like a committee whose members have been thrown together to do a job. Consider two of the most widely revered leaders in business—Peter Drucker and Jack Welch.

Drucker is globally regarded as one of the most sought-after minds in management science. But he wasn’t always right. For example, in September 1929, just a few weeks before the stock-market crash that led to the Great Depression, he began his career by publishing an article explaining why the New York Stock Exchange could only go up. Two decades later, writing about emerging trends in the packaging industry, he based his commentary on statistical analyses that were wildly incorrect. Years later, he told a reporter that a soap bubble exists for precisely twenty-five seconds (nonsense). Largely ignored in the United States for the first half of his seventy-year career, he was forced to go to Asia to find corporations interested in paying for his counsel. It wasn’t until his involvement in some of Japan’s revolutionary management techniques became better known that his advice became increasingly sought within the United States. But he was not always the sage we have come to know him as today; his wise and thoughtful self is complemented by a self that perhaps made snap judgments or read the facts wrong. In the end, Drucker was successful because he brought his best self to the fore.

As CEO of one of the world’s largest corporations for nearly twenty years, Jack Welch increased the market cap of General Electric thirtyfold. He was famous for spending the majority of his time developing his people into what was widely regarded as the finest team of executives in the world and in the process built a company that became almost universally known as a talent factory. He personally selected and groomed his successor to carry on this legacy. But he too had his failures. During the eight years after his retirement, the company’s performance dropped precipitately—its market capitalization fell to 20 percent of what it was when he led the company. The talent factory Welch had so carefully put in place did not have staying power. Despite these later disappointments, Welch was without a doubt one of the most influential CEOs of the twentieth century; he too focused on realizing his potential and that of those around him, deliberately choosing through discipline and hard work to bring his best self to the fore.

These two examples show that we can lionize or demonize even our most revered heroes. Perhaps Peter Drucker and Jack Welch have sometimes themselves been guilty of encouraging our heroic views of them. For them, it must have been a relief to ultimately experience mass admiration after many decades of sweat, struggle, uncertainty, and at times very public and harsh criticism. There is no question that the lifelong accomplishments of both Welch and Drucker have had an extraordinary impact on business.

But these examples show that every accomplished individual is also very flawed—and we must understand this paradox if we are to recognize what enables leaders to win their hard-earned reputations. The human longing to believe in the infallible leader is very powerful. To be under the direction of infallibility eases our fears in an uncertain future. But there are no gods in business or any other field. It’s something we may know rationally, but we must truly debunk our tendencies to categorize people as heroes or losers, gods or charlatans, and we must especially eliminate our penchant for categorizing and oversimplifying great leaders. They do not get it right every time—just much more often than their competitors, and for a much longer period. All good leaders have times of weakness, when their less heroic selves emerge. These are the sides of them that we do not celebrate and choose to forget when we build them into heroic caricatures. Knowing this will help all of us on our own quest to realize our potential and bring forth our best selves.

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from . Copyright 2011 Justin Menkes. All rights reserved.

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