Vision vs. conceit

Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

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"Vision or conceit? Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference..."

Most of the time it’s just difficult to face.

Ever work for somebody who’s convinced he’s the next Steve Jobs?

You know, the all-seeing visionary who was two steps ahead of the rest of us? The one who could never be dissuaded? Someone who believed that by sheer force of will he could change the world?

As you are probably aware, there was only one Steve Jobs. And one Bill Gates, for that matter. One Herb Kelleher. One Oprah Winfrey. One Howard Schultz. In fact, the reason we know the names of these visionary leaders is precisely because the lofty heights they achieved are rarely reached. And making their names known was probably not at the top of their to-do lists.

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Every company needs a vision, and it’s usually the person at the top’s job to articulate it. But having a household name is not a requirement of a visionary leader; in fact, those who wish to become one tend to do their organizations a disservice. Having worked with many struggling organizations over the years, I’ve seen all kinds of leaders, from the humble steward to the arrogant tyrant. You can guess which behavior is more helpful for returning a company to its feet.

We’ve witnessed firsthand the not-so-fine line between compelling vision and simple conceit. How to tell what’s driving the leader of your organization? Three questions tend to tell the tale.

Are they confident, or arrogant? When someone is confident in their vision, they find delight in bringing others along. They’re excited to share their thinking, hopeful that it inspires their team, and motivated to lead them into the future. Arrogance, however, breeds contempt; contempt for those who don’t get it, those who ask hard questions, or those who dare make a contrary suggestion. Contempt can be subtle but it’s impossible to hide.

Do they motivate by faith, or by fear? Visionary leaders inspire faith in their followers. An inspired team wants to bring the vision to life because they believe in it—and even if they can’t quite see it yet, they believe in their leader. Followers of conceit, by contrast, do so out of fear—fear of being reprimanded, or losing their jobs, or missing out, or being stabbed in the back. Good fruit can’t grow in toxic soil.

Is it about us, or about them? True visionaries are motivated by what’s in it for “us,” whether that means the company, its customers, or the world. By contrast, conceit has the unmistakable stench of “me,” and the “personal branding” thinking that’s so popular today can confuse leaders into believing that’s OK. The irony is that those who deserve approbation most tend not to seek it.

Volumes could be written about whether and to what extent leaders like Jobs, Gates, Kelleher, Winfrey and Schultz manifest the characteristics above. From what I read about Steve Jobs, for example, he sure seemed arrogant, terrifying, and personally ambitious, but those who knew him best might characterize him as supremely confident, genuinely inspiring and motivated to change the world. Either way, he was the rarest of rare breeds, and emulating his eccentricities while lacking his genius is unwise, to say the least. Yet many do.

All who lead do so to achieve lofty goals. But not all do so effectively, particularly if one of their goals is to be recognized as a lofty leader. If you’re unsure whether you work for someone driven more by healthy vision or destructive conceit, sit down and have a frank conversation with them about it. If you’re afraid to approach them -- or they’re unwilling to engage -- you may have your answer.