Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, Michael Maccoby on Leadership

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Executive Interviews: Interview with Michael Maccoby on Leadership
October 2006 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary

Michael Maccoby
President of The Maccoby Group in Washington, DC.

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  • In an article in Harvard Business Review, you said "there is no substitute for narcissistic leaders in this age of innovation". Who are these narcissistic leaders and why should companies be spending time and resources trying to know more about them?

  • These are the innovators who want to change the way people work and live. I have described some of them in the article. The well-known ones are Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Larry Ellison.

  • For new-economy companies, would narcissistic leaders be a curse or a blessing?

    Both. They can be great innovators and also arrogant and dishonest, e.g., Jeff Skilling, Joe Nacchio, Bernie Ebbers, or grandiose serial acquirers who go into debt, e.g., Jean-Marie Messier.

  • Can you give us a few examples of narcissistic leaders and their contributions?

  • See my response to question 1. Historically, Henry Ford, and John D Rockefeller transformed industries.

  • Have the connotations of leadership changed in the last four to five decades?

  • I don't know what you mean by connotations. But narcissistic leaders emerge in periods of great change in technology or revolution in politics, e.g., Lincoln, Gandhi, and Franklin Roosevelt on the positive side, and Napoleon, Hitler, Mao, and Stalin on the negative side.

  • What is the best way to nurture and develop leadership traits in today's corporate world? Are there any good examples of companies, which have put in place an exemplary leadership program?

  • Promising young leaders should be given responsibility early on. GE has had a notable leadership development program. But leadership education is ongoing. Even at the top, leaders should keep learning. Perhaps, especially at the top when they think they know it all.

  • In the Power of Transference (HBR September 2004) you have highlighted the different faces of transference. What is your take on these differences as of today?

  • We are seeing a movement away from the young idealizing leaders as parental figures and stronger emotional ties to colleagues due to sibling and peer transferences.

  • Does a national culture influence the leadership style? Or would it be the other way round?

  • National culture does make a difference. The benevolent despotism of Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore works in a traditional Chinese culture, but not in the West or even in postcommunist China. French hierarchical arrogance contrasts to the German type of hierarchy based on expert master craftsmanship. And so on. However, some business leaders are better able to work in different cultures than others who are unaware of differences.

  • How do you rate the leadership styles of Pierre Omidyar, Jeff Bezos and Phil Knight (leaders who have been operating from behind the scenes), and Bill Gates (who has taken a back seat now)?

  • Bezos and Gates are both productive narcissists, visionaries. Gates understood that he needed to partner with a more obsessive operational manager, Steve Ballmer. I haven't studied the others.

  • Is it better for a company to appoint a leader from within its rank and file or is it better to hire an outsider? Would your answer be different for those companies, which are going through trying times?

  • It really depends on the alternatives. It's better to find the best person in terms of brains, personality and fit with the type of company and its needs.

  • What are the ideals that you look up to in today's leaders? Who according to you are the best five (corporate) leaders that the world has seen in the last century?

  • I look for leaders in business who can create value for stakeholders and also improve the environment and develop the company's employees.

    They should present a model of both ethical behavior and moral reasoning. People in the company should be free to speak out. In politics, we need leaders who understand the challenges of the global economy, the environment, disease, violence and fundamentalism, who can mobilize people to act in a positive way to meet these challenges. The five best corporate leaders: James Proctor (P&G), Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard, Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Sidney Harman—on another day, I'd probably give you another list.

The Interview was conducted by Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary, Consulting Editor, Effective Executive and Dean, IBSCDC, Hyderabad.

This Interview was originally published in Effective Executive, IUP, October 2006.

Copyright © October 2006, IBSCDC No part of this publication may be copied, reproduced or distributed, stored in a retrieval system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any form or medium – electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise – without the permission of IBSCDC.

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