Why Being Mean Won’t Help You Be a Good Leader

Author: Casey Gale       

When Mark Lipton started researching executive leadership effectiveness decades ago, he came upon an alarming trend: A large number of the founding entrepreneurs he read about had a distinct, unfortunate personality trait — meanness. Many of us have heard stories about cold-hearted behavior of leaders such as Steve Jobs or Henry Ford, but Lipton, an adviser to major corporations, start-ups, government agencies, and not-for-profits, feels that the aggression in leaders — in particular, male leaders — goes beyond a handful of examples.

“As practiced in the United States, entrepreneurship or entrepreneurial leadership is all about standing alone. It requires aggressiveness and innovativeness in the face of possible failure,” Lipton writes in his new book Mean Men: The Perversion of America’s Self-Made Man. “It adheres to the assumption that standout personal achievement is valued over the success of a group, with a vision and leadership seen as virtues of the individual. Especially as Americans, we like to see ourselves as born mavericks and innovators never satisfied to live with the status quo.”

Many businessmen, according to Lipton, have “entrepreneurial personality traits,” including a need for achievement, drive, a predisposition to take risks, and a need for control. According to his research, testosterone only amplifies these traits. “What’s more, evidence links testosterone with antisocial behaviors like violence and aggression, as well as less socially toxic behaviors such as assertiveness and fearlessness,” Lipton writes.

Lipton believes that meanness has been normalized in American culture in recent years, with a number of polls in recent years finding that Americans feel authentic leadership is in the decline. “Mean destroys community and divides organizations and social groups,” Lipton writes. “[Mean leaders’] behavior is appalling, and it’s wrong. But more than that, I know it doesn’t have to be this way. Contrary to the popular wisdom, mean doesn’t ‘get results,’ and it doesn’t ‘work.’ In fact, a growing body of compelling research shows just the opposite. It is the leaders who support and empower people, act with authentic leadership, and inspire trust who get the best results in the long term.”

So how does a leader avoid meanness and achieve authenticity? Here are Lipton’s ideas of such a person, also known as a civil leader:

1. Authentic leaders place more emphasis on values than on mission. “By explicitly stating their values and getting others to sign on, they make it easier for themselves and their group to ensure everything they do aligns — on the field, in the halls of Congress, or in the boardroom,” Lipton writes.

2. Authentic leaders reward collaboration, not just competition. “By forging connections and building trust in their teams,” Lipton says, “they build a culture that leverages the individual gifts of the group.”

3. Authentic leaders share power. “By giving their constituents greater autonomy and supporting their individual growth, leaders reap the collective rewards,” Lipton writes.

4. Authentic leaders give recognition. “Civil leaders are quick to reward and highlight innovation, excellence, and demonstrated commitment,” Lipton says.

5. Authentic leaders celebrate their community. “It’s not just results that matter,” Lipton writes, “but the environment that engenders them.”