The NY Times reported on “Jerks and the Startups they ruin.” Jerks often are oblivious to the seeds of damage they are sowing, creating a fraternity of “bro-culture” adherents, who see things the same way and egg each other on – rubbing each other the right way.
Charging-buffalo innovation leaders seem invincible. They don’t suffer fools gladly. They set a fast pace, lofty goals and expect those around them to pick up the slack and deliver. They set a work-hard play-hard cadence. Allowing for mistakes, setbacks, iterations or fatigue is for losers, they say, if not imply, wowing investors and collaborators with their imagination, energy and brilliance.
If you’re in sync with a charging-buffalo, you’ll find them to be great buddies. But rub them the wrong way – with complications, sensitivities, risk factors, costs or timelines that have to be adjusted – and you’ll quickly be seen as a naysayer, slacker, troublemaker. Their instinct is to “kill the messenger” and neutralize the opposition, to preserve their hegemony, status, cadence and control. No matter what it costs the enterprise.
Can a charging-buffalo jerk transform into a balanced and mature business-builder? In all but the most extreme cases, the answer is “Yes,” if the coach is prepared to work with the leader to build…
1) The courage to thrive under pressure. Contrary to the image they project, hard-charging buffalos have emotional intelligence that collapses when they encounter a personality that rubs them the wrong way, a perspective that contradicts their instincts and assumptions, a delay or complication they hadn’t anticipated or built into their all-too-optimized timeline. Rub them the wrong way and their limbic brain screams WTF! They run through a litany of worst-case scenarios, with more and more panic. They push back with disbelief and indignation, moreso if the counter-intuitive perspective comes from a low-hegemony profession, gender, age group or ethnic group – who can’t possibly know what s/he knows or see what s/he sees. Until the hard-charging buffalo upgrades his or her emotional intelligence and learns to count to 10 and self-soothe rather than panic or retaliate, s/he’s fated to look at diverse perspectives with a “glass-half-empty” rather than a “glass-half-full” perspective – and dismiss them as liabilities rather than resources.
2) The courage to value diversity. In 2000 (ancient times, right?), an article in Strategy+Business advised CEOs to create a balance and dynamic tension – between what they called “the culture of hype” (favored by charging buffalos) and “the culture of craft” (favored by technicians and caregivers). The culture of craft requires teammates to focus on execution, quality, safety, user-experience and is the perspective that charging buffalos are often tempted to undervalue and dismiss as too slow, soft, risk-averse and pedestrian. Yet, the difference between a jerk and a mature business-builder is the degree to which charging-buffalos listen and respect the technical-bears who say, “we need time and space to solve the problems,” even when they come from a gender, age group, profession, nationality or ethnic group that differs sharply from those who come from the “bro-culture.”
3) The courage to share power. Hard-charging buffalos don’t yield control easily – even when they should. They’re far better at doing the important things themselves, taking control and micro-managing through a crisis. They need to learn how to hire larger than themselves, delegate the right responsibilities to the people who have skills that they lack, how to equip them with the information and resources those experts need to succeed, how to instill accountability and how to accelerate without swamping the boat. Charging buffalos often are guilty of over-estimating their skills – they confuse Courage with ego and overconfidence and have to learn humility.
4) The courage to ennoble, not enable. Jerks can’t be jerks alone. We rarely take on a coaching assignment with hard-charging buffalo in isolation of the support system who can create new team dynamics. Unless the board insists that the “bro-culture-of-hype” charging buffalo develop the courage to thrive with high EQ under pressure, value diversity and share power – hard-charging founders and executives are likely to revert to old habits when the going gets tough and rationalize their lack of progress. Unless teammates step up and assert the culture of craft – and do their part to lean in and create dynamic tension, even when it’s not what hard-charging buffalos want to hear – the culture of hype will prevail. Unless staff members from HR, Finance, Quality, PM and other support disciplines help to instill performance management and accountability systems, there won’t be a strong enough foundation to sustain the courage to share power.
If you’re ready to PowerUP and move past the dynamics that the NY Times described, we’d welcome a dialogue – to see how a fun vivid simulation can get the ball rolling and how coaching and training can equip your leaders to encode new habits into their skill-sets. Share comments about what’s worked for you – or send an email to get in touch.