MT Expert: Debunking the myth of the 'genius leader'

What are the faults of the 'genius CEO' ideal, and has it had its day? Andrew Leigh looks at why it's the wrong approach.

by Andrew Leigh
Last Updated: 21 Sep 2012

When Steve Jobs returned to Apple to rescue it from impending oblivion, he was widely seen as a white knight, riding to the company’s rescue. That’s how leadership has been regarded in business for many years—the leader as hero, as genius with a thousand helpers.

Debunking this distorted view of leadership is taking time. But thankfully it’s steadily happening. Increasingly, business leaders are being recognised for what they really are - people able to offer leadership and inspiration, not genius.

The seminal work of Jim Collins showed clearly that many highly successful organisations did not depend on a genius leader. Instead, the best ones were people who were modest, wilful, driven and persistent, rather than brimming over with charisma.

One of the worst cases of the ‘leader treated as hero’ syndrome occurred at Ford in the 1970s, under Lee Iacocca. After achieving a stellar reputation at Ford, he later emerged as a hero leader when he took over and rescued Chrysler. His resulting high profile has obscured a darker side of his leadership.

While at Ford, Iacocca launched the Pinto, a small car which eventually became known for a terrible history. Under Iacocca’s leadership the production of the car was continued relentlessly. As engineers subsequently admitted, safety was something of a dirty word at Ford under Iacocca. Whenever anyone mentioned it, he would chomp on his cigar, growl and tell the person to look at the production schedule, and that was the end of the discussion. 

At some point it emerged the Pinto had a serious production fault that put lives at risk. The petrol tank was vulnerable to a rear end collision with a tendency to burst into flames. Indeed this actually happened on several occasions. The engineers identified an $11 insert that would prevent the tank exploding. It would have to be installed in all new Pintos but all existing ones would also need to be recalled.

The engineers duly did their sums. A detailed cost benefit put a price on human life and compared it with the cost of rectifying the fault. They concluded it was cheaper to bear the cost of litigation over the consequences of the tank exploding than to do anything about it. When asked if they had reported all this to Iacocca, an engineer admitted ‘hell no!’ It was seen as a sure-fire way to lose your job.

The decision did terrible damage to Ford’s reputation, costing far more in the courts than the naïve cost benefit analysis had predicted. Even now, mentioning the Pinto would be an uncomfortably tactless remark in earshot of a Ford executive. The serious ethical implications of the failure to act reverberate through the ages, but so too does the result of allowing a ‘genius leader’ to dominate decisions as Iacocca did.

Despite the backlash in recent years about celebrity leadership following the wrongdoing of heroic leaders such as Jean-Marie Messier of Vivendi or Jeffrey Skilling at Enron for example, the love affair with the big personality genius leader appears to remain alive and well. Boards appointing new CEOs continue to demand large dollops of charisma and where possible a sizeable chunk of genius. Somehow we cannot seem to imagine leadership without also wanting the magical persona.

What will it take to be a strong leader in the 21st Century? What will matter are two fundamentals: individuality and insight. Individuality is about being different, distinctive and characterful. Insight is the ability to see what others do not and make sense of the current and impending business landscape. Being a genius leader is entirely a distraction. In most cases, leadership that simply inspires or engages people will be good enough.

Andrew Leigh is a founding Director of Maynard Leigh Associates and author of Charisma; he is also joint author with fellow director Michael Maynard of Leading the Way, published by Pearson in October 2012. 

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