Winning (Is It Everything?) in Business.


I often find myself going to David Brooks's op-ed pieces in the New York Times for "inspiration" for my posts. Brooks, as I wrote earlier, is intrigued by sociology, as I am, and intersperses columns with a sociological frame with those on political themes. Today he is writing about what makes CEOs successful, based on earlier research by a team from the University of Chicago and other research correlating performance with personality traits.

It seemed to me that he was selecting and stretching the data to get to the point he finally made in the article.

For the same reason, business and politics do not blend well. Business leaders tend to perform poorly in Washington, while political leaders possess precisely those talents — charisma, charm, personal skills — that are of such limited value when it comes to corporate execution.

We now have an administration freely interposing itself in the management culture of industry after industry. It won’t be the regulations that will be costly, but the revolution in values. When Washington is a profit center, C.E.O.’s are forced to adopt the traits of politicians. That is the insidious way that other nations have lost their competitive edge.

He may be correct in his concerns that businesses will perform differently (and he implies badly) with the government in the foreground as well as in the background. But his story does not get us to that point. I went back to the articles he cites in his column and found a different tale.

First of all, the study he cites was limited to CEO candidates being hired by venture capital or buyout firms. The authors are quick to point out that this is a very limited set of data and will be difficult to generalize. Buyouts are limited to firms that are deemed to be underperforming in the financial marketplace, but are seen to have intrinsic value. So it makes sense that strongly-focused hires are sent in to cut costs and get the ship to an even keel. Venture hires are made when the founder or entrepreneur has taken the firm as far as his or her skills allow.

Brooks points to the part of the analysis that suggests that people with hard (analytic) skills outperform those with softer (relational) skills. But the authors’ own data shows that neither does particularly well. The hard-drivers among the subjects of the study were deemed to be successful less than half the time.

But my real concern is the implication that business needs a special kind of leader. Brooks lists some of the qualities he has selected. “Organized, dogged, anal-retentive and slightly boring people are more likely to thrive.” The research may tilt toward that classification, but, if it does, the correlations are admittedly weak with many exceptions.

But it just such anal-retentive folks who brought down the companies they were leading. AIG might be said to have failed because its boring CEO lacked the people skills needed to judge the single trader that did in the firm. I would guess that these results and the conclusions are what statisticians call self-consistent. Companies have become machines run by power-driven hierarchies driven by the numbers, instead of enterprises with missions to provide for the concerns of its employees, investors, and customers. So it is inevitable that men (yes, CEOs are still mostly men) that fit the type-A profile will preferentially succeed.

What these traits do add up to is a certain ideal personality type. 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.

For this reason, people in the literary, academic and media worlds rarely understand business. It is nearly impossible to think of a novel that accurately portrays business success. That’s because the virtues that writers tend to admire — those involving self-expression and self-exploration — are not the ones that lead to corporate excellence.

But is this really success, given the collapse of so many of the giants of American business and the financial mess that our business leaders have created.

I could spend a lot more time and space arguing that the narrowness of these leaders is strongly correlated with unsustainability, in this case, of the economy. Maybe what is really needed is more teamwork and true collaboration among the hard and the soft. Steve Jobs may be anal-retentive, but he is also a dreamer, an artist.

Getting back to the financial crisis, I find this short squib from the Washington Post suggests a different side of this issue than Brooks. David Walker, former Comptroller General of the US says:

Studies have shown that women tend to [be] somewhat more risk averse and future focused than men. More emphasis on both of these attributes likely would likely have served to reduce but not eliminate the economic and other challenges that we currently face.

These traits are consistent with the values that underlie sustainability in a complex world. Sustainability, as the possibility of flourishing, is a vision that must be realized by pulling into the future, not by manipulation of the past.