Executives vs Leaders

This was the recurring theme in my day yesterday. It hit me as we were in bed last night watching the democrats debate in Nevada. The question was about strengths and weaknesses. Barack Obama volunterred that he wasn’t much of an operator and that his staff knew to give him the piece of paper at the last possible moment so he didn’t lose it. Apparently his desk looks like mine. Hillary on the other hand painted herself as the consummate executive. In command of every detail.

The Gotham Gal turned to me and said, "see he couldn’t run a candy store". Gotham (as Howard fondly calls my wife) is solidly in Hillary’s camp. I find myself torn. The visionary leader versus the consummate executive.

Obama argues that he can hire operating executives but you can’t hire visionary leaders. If my world is any measure, he’s dead right about that. Most of the people who come knocking on our door are visionary leaders and they are rarely consummate executives.

I am not going to get into why this was the theme of my day yesterday because it would mean diving into things which should remain private. But I can talk about a conversation I had with my former partner Jerry Colonna last week.

Jerry has always been incredibly insightful when it comes to people. He’s moved on from being a VC to being a life coach and if you are looking for a great one, send me an email and I’ll connect you with Jerry.

I was talking to Jerry about the classic visionary leader entrepreneur and the inevitable issues that arise inside the companies they lead. He pointed me to this excellent HBR article titled Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons.

For those of you not steeped in Freudian theory (count me in that group), there are three classic freudian personality types; narcissists, obsessives, and erotics. If self diagnosis is allowed, I am a narcissist. And so are the vast majority of the entrpereneurs we back. Narcissists are the visionary leader stereotype. Think Steve Jobs. Obsessives are the consummate executive. Think any top notch chief operating officer you know. And that’s just it. Steve Jobs is a famous person. Most top notch chief operating officers are not.

It turns out that there are  productive and destructive versions of all three personality types. What the visionary leader/narcissist needs at his or her side is a productive obsessive. Think Gates and Jon Shirley or Larry Ellison and Ray Lane.

But what happens when the leader is a productive obsessive? Well in my experience that’s fine if the company is operating in a relatively stable environment and the challenge at hand is largely related to heads down execution. But if you are operating in a dynamic environment when the risks are high, rapid decisions need to be made, and patience is not a virtue, find yourself a narcissist for the job and pair him or her with a productive obsessive.

So back to Barack versus Hillary. Could Hillary work for Barack? That would be one hell of a team. But it’s not likely. She’s done that job for one other president for not eight, but thirty years. And she’s most likely looking for the top job or nothing else. And I don’t blame her.