A University of Chicago study in 2008 divided 316 CEO candidates into two groups: Those who mastered the ‘softer’ skills of management, such as demonstrating openness to feedback, possessing great listening skills, and treating people with respect; and those who mastered the ‘harder’ skills of execution, quickness, aggressiveness, and tenacity. The researchers then linked these different CEO traits to financial performance. The result? According to Chicago business professor Steven Kaplan, the softer-skilled leaders, or “Lambs,” as he labeled them, succeeded 57 percent of the time. Not bad. The aggressive, hard-nosed managers, or “Cheetahs,” however, succeeded 100 percent of time. Now that’s conclusive.
Or is it? According to Geoff Smart and Randy Street of ghSMART, a top management assessment firm that conducted the in-depth CEO interviews, different situations call for different leadership characteristics. The Chicago study, for instance, focused on CEOs at private equity-owned companies, which are frequently purchased with high debt-loads and expected to achieve fast results through aggressive restructurings that require tough-minded managers. In other situations – whether building teams, motivating people, or managing relations with diverse constituents – interpersonal and team-oriented skills are crucial.
With job satisfaction rates now at record lows and financial incentives less plentiful, letting your inner lamb come out can be highly effective for building employee motivation and commitment. Simple actions such as sharing the spotlight, soliciting and being open to feedback, coaching employees to help them develop, and taking the time to explain how a project fits both the company’s goals and an individual’s self-interest can all increase employee buy-in. Already in a position of leadership, sharing such intangibles may not matter much to you, but can make all the difference for your employees.
These same lamb abilities are just as important when engaging outside with customers. At the top of many fields, leadership roles commonly require sales skills. Seasoned investment bankers, for instance, after years of modeling and building pitch books, often become key relationship managers. They win deals. And if there’s any time to be loved, it’s with your clients.
Let’s take one example. Warren Buffett doesn’t much like investment bankers; he famously disdains them. That is, except one – Byron Trott. Buffett has bestowed the ex-Goldman Sachs managing director with his highest praise, saying, “He understands Berkshire far better than any investment banker with whom we have talked and – it hurts me to say this – earns his fees."
Byron Trott has mastered the softer side of leadership. He has a strong sense of empathy and understands his clients. As Buffett adds in his 2008 shareholder letter, “Byron is the rare investment banker who puts himself in his client’s shoes… I trust him completely.” But, Trott is not all lamb. He was also known for working 20-hour days as he managed the Chicago office, and he just last year launched his own $2 billion merchant bank.
So, is it better to be loved or feared? Is it better to be a lamb or a cheetah? Geoff Smart and Randy Street show us that the most important leadership traits depend on the situation. In some instances, it’s all about execution. In others, knowing how to empathize and motivate are key. Byron Trott proves that these two sets of characteristics do not have to be mutually exclusive, and when combined, they can be especially powerful. Even Machiavelli admits, “One should wish to be both.” So, go on. Be a lamb-cheetah.
*** This article is based on the research and writing of Michael Schwalbe, a seasoned investment analyst and workplace psychology wonk. His work contributes to the knowledgebase of the Behance team, who run the Behance Creative Network, the 99% productivity think tank, the Action Method project management application, and the Creative Jobs List.