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.

#Politics#VC & Technology

Comments (Archived):

  1. Farhan Lalji

    What’s more likely, that Obama picks a good operator as VP or Clinton picks a good visionary as a VP – and does the Visionary work when they’re second in command? Because I think Obama’s likely to pick a great operator (I’m rooting for Bloomberg, but Hilary would be great too), my vote – if I had one – would be with Barack.

    1. fredwilson

      Bloomberg has proven to be both a great leader and execHed get my vote immediately if he runsFred

    2. MParekh

      Visionaries generally don’t do well as second fiddles, so “Clinton picks a good visionary as a VP” doesn’t cut it. Except of course you think Cheney was a visionary and a Narcissistic Leader.

  2. stone

    Washington is about policies and programs. Vision can move parts of the government if the same party controls all aspects of the system. If Barack wins, but doesn’t control both houses of Congress, his ability to use “vision” to lead will be impossible. I think the American people really respect player-coaches. This is what they liked about Bill Clinton, despite his personal problems, people respected his knowledge and work ethic. That saved him in the end.

    1. stallone

      stone, i would agree if it weren’t for obama’s clear & deserved reputation for getting atangonists to reach compromise … and still end up with progressive legislation / policy … and walk away with having the atangonists respect if not admire him.i would agree with your assessment of bill. but let’s be careful not to commute that to hillary.

      1. fredwilson

        Maybe I am transferring my own experience with a strong woman in my life but I suspect that bill benefited greatly from having hillary as his sidekickFred

  3. stone

    If you notice I never mentioned Hillary. I’m still very much in the undecided camp — probably leaning toward McCain. I think Barack Obama is very likeable but I do think he needs another 4-6 years in the Senate, or as VP, before he becomes President. I have no clue how this plays out but I wouldn’t be shocked to see Obama as President someday — just not this year.

    1. fredwilson

      McCain has always interested me.But I’ve heard he’s a difficult personFred

      1. MParekh

        “difficult person” goes with being a Narcissistic leader sometimes, no?

        1. fredwilson

          Very much so in my experienceFred

  4. Valeria Maltoni

    Your conclusion supports the thinking that sometimes one leader at the top is all you need šŸ˜‰ What happens when two strong personalities and leader types are paired?

  5. Zoli Erdos

    As for that doghouse situation…. well, would you believe there is now a “social alarm clock”: http://www.sleep.fm. “The first sleep and wake up social networking site, where your friends’ alarm messages wake you up!”I’m not endorsing it, it’s just a coincidence that I read about the site 5 minutes ago.

    1. fredwilson

      I could have used that at 6 30am this morning!

  6. stone

    At the end of the day someone has to make the tough decisions. Group think doesn’t always work or apply to certain situations. Fred talks about visionaries are often *not* good managers. I agree with that but know of some and think we deserve someone that can walk and chew gum at the same time. We are the greatest country in the world — travel a little and you will know this. We have some of the most talented people in the world. One of them should be President. If you don’t know how to manage how can you evaluate your senior team?

  7. shmula

    John Kotter speaks, in an HBS article, about the differences between Management and Leadership. I summarize his thoughts here.Both are absolutely required, but are different in their own right. Visionary Leaders are much more rare than good, solid operators. The Leader-Manager is necessary for upstarts, but most people will have a natural propensity toward one or the other, but usually not both.

  8. Name Jerry

    First, thanks for the mention Fred. You’re gracious. Second, if folks are interested in the HBR article on Narcissistic leaders I’d recommend highly the author’s book on the subject: The Productive Narcissist. Third, I think you summarize the Obama Vs Hillary challenge in an interesting way. I disagree with the assertion that Hillary would likely be the better executive. I think everyone who runs for political office has some pretty active narcissim. The key question is which candidate if elected could inspire the best and brightest (obsessives if you will) and get them to work for the cause, the country. The best leaders inspire and make possible the best possible work.

  9. jackson

    I’m erotic, and my campaign message is designed to land in the groin area.

    1. fredwilson

      Somehow I knew that I was going to get that comment from you Jackson!

  10. TDefren

    Many pundits have suggested that there are no *major* policy differences between Obama and Clinton. Thus, we could get the policy-smarts of Clinton but be INSPIRED to help enact those policies via Obama.I’m ready to be inspired to the good. I am ready for a president who does not inspire witless rancor by 1/2 the electorate.And I am sick of the Clinton/Bush lock on the Oval Office.

  11. charlie crystle

    Fred,The country doesn’t need someone to manage the existing paradigm, it needs someone to change the paradigm. We won’t get that this time around, but Obama’s ability to inspire will catalyze much more positive change than HC’s ability to manage policy. The leadership of the country is as much (if not more) about the administration–the people that develop and direct policy around the vision (or lack of it) of the President.

    1. David B.

      I think that’s what exactly Fred is saying, though, that he’s for Obama because of his vision and ability to catalyze more positive change than Hillary.People talk about Obama’s ability to speak as if he’s a car salesman, but he and Kucinich are the only candidates whose votes paralleled their actions. Hillary, Edwards, and the others voted for the Iraq War, the Patriot Act and every other horrible decision in the last eight years. I’m tired of words. I’m tired of platitudes. They helped create the mess we’re in, and that gives me no confidence that they have the ability to get us out of it.

  12. Nick Molnar

    I would argue that this debate is flawed at the premise. With the exception of Bush/Cheney and a few others throughout history, the role of the VP is not being second in command. The Vice President normally has their own agenda, their own schedule, and a whole crowd of their own staff. What you want is Obama as president and Hillary as Chief of Staff; however, we all know that Hillary isn’t going to jump at that opportunity.

    1. fredwilson

      I agree completelyVP is usually a ceremonial post at bestUnless the president “gets hit by a truck”fred

      1. Charlie Crystle

        I’m surprised the truck traffic isn’t higher in DC these days.

  13. Aaron Gray

    Interesting. My wife and I are in this same debate. She is *locked* in the Hillary camp, saying “she’ll know what to do on day 1” and “Barack just makes a good speach”. I can go either way, but I don’t see Hillary as a leader, which makes my wife crazy. I want a leader – someone who will inspire those around them to acheive great things. She wants a policy wonk. I see the value of a policy wonk, but want someone who can see a vision not yet actualized and inspire people to bring that to fruition – including the policy wonks. These are good times we live in. To have deep enough choices where we can even afford to have this level of discussion about the alternatives is amazing.

    1. fredwilson

      To have wives we can talk to like this is amazing

  14. Billionaire Strategies

    The problem with Hillary is that so many people can’t stand her. Democrats included. What does she stand for besides Hillary? If there is anything, she’s keeping it in the lockbox–to parrot Al Gore.You know what’s truly depressing about this election cycle? Out of a pool of 300 million Americans, the best candidates the nation can come up with are Hillary, Obama, Edwards, McCain, Huckabee, Romney, and Guiliani? (Have I missed anyone?)And I thought the pickings were slim in 2000 and 2004.My suspicion is that people of value are simply avoiding running. Why submit oneself and one’s family to not only the media circus but the new sliming tactics introduced by the Swiftboaters back in 2000?It’s not worth it. Hence we are left with a pack of third raters willing to put up with anything in order to secure a place in history for themselves.

  15. bridgetwi

    I notice a distinct generational difference. As an under 40 (barely), i relate much better to those 15 years younger than 15 years older. My husband and I are “over” the boomers. First ineffective idealists, then cynical operatives. Obama, to me, represents a vision (an entrepreneurial spirit ) that I can understand. An idealism fueled and balanced by an ability to execute in an open and progressive way. I also happen to believe Obama is a visionary like I have not seen in my lifetime. Regardless, I disagree with Billionaires Strategies. I think the Democrats for once have a decent slate of candidates. Now I can finally resign my membership in Kerry Haters for Kerry.

    1. fredwilson

      I know how you feel.Fred

  16. S.t

    so far, Fred, you’ve compared Hillery to Robert Rubin, Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and Steve Jobs…but the only reason that she’s made a name for herself is that she tried to drive Big Pharma into the ground 15yrs ago, and that she kept her mouth shut for eight years.& as for Obama…http://ibdeditorials.com/IB

    1. fredwilson

      As you can see I hold her in high regardI may not vote for her but I am a big fan of hersFred

  17. S.t

    here’s more on The Empty Pantsuithttp://www.ibdeditorials.co…

  18. bernardlunn

    Great debate. I was thinking the same thing about entrepreneur vs manager. And I think the times are volatile enough that we need entrepreneur not manager ie Obama not Clinton. My wife as it happens agrees! But yes Bloomberg combines both. Check out [email protected] on YouTube. Obama was asked about experience and was quick to point out that Brin and Page lacked experience! Bloomberg is also good on Google debate as was McCain (I love the way he really engages with people who disagree with him).

  19. Preston

    It’s funny you write this article. When I heard Clinton seize on Obama for his comments on organization, I thought: she absolutely doesn’t have what it takes to be President.Why?Exactly as you say. As most people learn in business school, there’s a difference between managers and leaders (see link).Depending on the role, you choose a person that can perform the task. I would argue, as Obama did last night, that what the country needs is not a manager, but a leader.

  20. Bob

    Anyone who runs for the president has to be narcissistic, after all he/she has to have the absolute confidence that he/she can lead the country, especially stepping into an era of pending recession worries, subprime mortgage mess, $100/gallon gasoline, and the white elephant, Iraq. So I see both Barack and Hillary as narcissists. What Barack has over Hillary is the gift of gab and the ability to inspire people. However, it is going to take a lot more to convince me than merely and repeatedly chanting the phrase “change”.Despite best intentions, which I suspect many politicians had when they first became government servants, they soon find themselves up against an entrenched system with its own unwritten rules on how to get things done. They quickly find their idealism slipping away and getting nothing accomplished if they insist on doing the right thing. So they resigned to getting what they can for their constituents usually through the means of pork inserted into bills, ie, if you want to get my vote on this bill, I need something in return. IMO, this is how the government system really works. A candidate can have the best laid plans for change but unless he/she can work with the system, they will get nothing accomplished, Arnold found this out the hard way.

  21. blakeborgeson

    Full article text: http://www.maccoby.com/Arti…Just wanted to share with other followers of Fred’s blog who found the ‘taster’ article on the HBR website incredibly interesting that what looks like the full text of the article is published on the author’s personal website.I’m excited to see these profiles that have been discussed and elaborated on so much applied to business leaders. Very helpful for me. I’m a new reader as of the last couple months and the insights here are generally top of the heap, if that’s even a saying anymore.

  22. Chris Albinson

    Fred great thread. I was thinking about this watching the debate last night as well. Romney is likely the only productive (read positive) obsessive in the race. Does the country want a real obsessive – fix the economy type or a more transformative leader with vision (productive narcissist) like Barack? Time will tell, but that is a race I would love to see. On balance, it feels like the country could benefit a real change. Barack gave the only honest answer to the standard “what are your strengths and weaknesses” question. Hillary and John gave the canned “I feel for people too much” answers that you hate to hear when you interview someone. The syrup gags in your throat – too sweet – kind of answer. Worse yet, Hillary attacked Barack today as not being organized enough to be president – ugh. Yes it is silly season, but the choice is likely to have a big impact on all of us for the next 8 years. I would take the Barack/Mitt ticket any day of the week! It reminds me of the circa early 1998 Scott McNeilly/Ed Zander team(-;

  23. Hockeydino

    In a news conference Deanna Favre announced she will be the startingQuarterback for the Green Bay Packers this coming Sunday. Deannaasserts that she is qualified to be starting quarterback because she hasspent the past 16 years married to Brett while he played quarterback forthe Green Bay Packers. During this period of time she became familiarwith the definition of a corner blitz, and is now completely comfortablewith other terminology of the Green Bay Packers offense. A survey ofPackers fans shows that 50% of those polled supported the move.Does this sound idiotic and unbelievable to you? Well, Hillary Clintonmakes the same claims as to why she is qualified to be President of theUnited States and 50% of Democrats polled agreed. She has NEVER run aCity, County, or State Government!When told Hillary Clinton has experience because she has eight years inthe white house, John Madden stated: “so has the pastry chef”.

    1. fredwilson

      Someone else left this exact same comment word for word on an earlier postIs this one of those right wing smear things people paste all over the internetIf so, please keep it off this blogfred

  24. crawford

    Excellent take Fred. Thanks. My vote goes to Visionary Leader. As you said, the other is comparatively easy to hire.

    1. phoneranger

      I’ve read most of these comments and it’s amazing how little weight people are placing on what Hillary has actually said and done. She botched up the Health Care initiative in ’94 with terrible long-term consequences. She supported the Iraq War because…dunno. Naive, cynical, poor judgment. She’s onboard with attacking Iran. Now my point isn’t that she’s deficient ideologically. It’s that she’s displaying the same lousy leadership skills we are seeing in abundance at the banks and brokerages in the sub-prime crisis. Bank CEO’s were also consummate executives who had no fucking clue about the risks they were taking for their shareholders. They knew they had to make their quarterly numbers and the only way to do that was making big bets on Red. The US is in a similar spot right now. The next 20 quarters are looking very very challenging. We need someone who can a) play roulette when it’s necessary and b) more importantly, know when it’s time to change tables and play a different game.

      1. fredwilson

        Good comment. Care to share who you think the best risk taker in the bunch is?Fred

  25. Dan Weinreb

    I agree with absolutely everything you say. At least half of the president’s power comes from persuasiveness rather than direct exercise of power. What you need for a president is someone to make the big decisions about direction and policy.Furthermore, I think Clinton is unelectable. So many people hate her already, and the Republican attack machine with have a field day with her (which will be extremely ugly and unpleasant). So I’m for Obama.

  26. Aruni S. Gunasegaram

    As you alluded to it depends on the stage of the company/government. Ideally you have a charasmatic leader who can execute. Men and women are different so I although I know this might not be PC, I would encourage you to look at each candidate keeping that in mind. Women have had to execute on a bunch of different things their entire lives…just not always in an office/govt environment. As a result of our culture, they exhibit visionary tendencies differently. Charisma in a woman is different than charisma in a man. There may also be more psychic (i.e., visionaries that see into the future) women then there are men.Also, who has more charisma Gates or Jobs? I think the answer is fairly clear. To me it’s clear they are both visionaries. I would say that the most successful presidents exibit more charasmatic tendencies than visionary tendencies (e.g. Reagan and B. Clinton). To me a visionary tries to see into the future and they may not necessarily be charasmatic. My 2 cents.

  27. wfs

    I keep hearing the comment from the Clinton camp that we’ve already had the “visionary” approach and it didn’t work. What I’m not hearing is that we’ve also already had the detail hands-on executive and it didn’t work either. Remember Jimmy Carter?

  28. jstern64

    Great discussion-thanks people!A comment was made about ‘the next 20 quarters being very very challenging’- so very true! In fact, the climate has changed drastically since these candidates decided to run. Things are so complicated now that whoever ends up in the White House better be prepared for a messy stay! The next Prez is no doubt going to be fumbling a lot. We need someone with a good all around team.

  29. Chris Yeh

    In addition to some of the other resources mentioned, I think that Marcus Buckingham does a great job of distinguishing between leaders and managers in his book, “The One Thing You Need To Know.”In it, he writes:”To excel as a manager, you must never forget that each of your direct reports is unique and that your chief responsibility is not to eradicate this uniqueness, but rather to arrange roles, responsibilities, and expectations so that you can capitalize upon it. The more you perfect this skill, the more effectively you will turn talents into performance.To excel as a leader requires the opposite skill. You must become adept at calling upon those needs we all share. Our common needs include the need for security, for community, for authority, and for respect, but for you, the leader, the most powerful universal need is our need for clarity. To transform our fear of the unknown into confidence in the future, you must discipline yourself to describe our joint future vividly and precisely. As your skill in this grows, so will our confidence in you.”When I see Hillary, I see a manager, not a leader. The two are necessary, but very different.For those who don’t have the time to read the whole book, I’ve also posted a summary here:http://bookoutlines.pbwiki….

  30. Jake

    Here’s an article by Cass Sunstein from the New Republic:http://www.tnr.com/politics…Sunstein worked with Obama at the University of Chicago when Obama was teaching constitutional law, and, during their time as colleagues, it became clear to Sunstein that Obama was a rare blend of “visionary” and “minimalist.” Obama, unlike most constitutional scholars or judges, was able to simultaneously work gracefully with the details of tradition and throw them out in favor of what’s right. Sunstein thinks this will translate into a president capable of both operating and leading.

  31. Christian Sterner

    Fred, I like that you have to travel back up to the footer of your posts to comment. Often, we get so caught up in the comments section of a blog that we forget to revisit the source. Solid reminder.I apologize as I have not yet spent time reading “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons,” but I have a pretty major problem with likening visionaries to “narcissists”. From memory, the definition of a narcissist is “extreme admiration of oneself.” Visionaries, at their best, are very confident, but don’t fit this bill. Rather, they risk life and limb for what they believe in, and people naturally follow this kind of energy. I could never follow a manager, unless they allow visionaries to do their work knowing that it is in their best interest as a manager. Rarely the case, but they are out there.In any event, Hillary is a robot, and can’t change the fact that she’s had to play “the game” for so many years that she has become the game. This country needs visionaries willing to risk their lives to correct the wrong in our world, and country. I’m not sure we have one to choose in ’08, but Barack is the closest to it.

    1. fredwilson

      Narcissist is a word Freud used to describe a personality typeDon’t take the word too literallyYou should read the article if you are curious about itfred

  32. Eric

    Clinton..Obama…Kinda all the same to me as I’m not from the US. However the points made in your post are key to all of our daily lives…not because of the reach of US politics…and yes, that reach is far. No you comments are important because they relate to how each of us needs to think about our own lives and how we do things.Are you (Am I) an executive or a leader? Do I need to be both? Which is more important for me in my daily life and what I’m trying to get done? I was reading a blog by James Brausch (http://www.jamesbrausch.org) where he really likes to hit home the fact that without a really clear focus on what you are trying to accomplish, you’ll never be able to execute (be an executive) or lead. Your post really brought that all back to me, even if US politics aren’t that important in my daily life…Thanks,Eric

  33. Erik

    Keep on blogging, we need you. Iā€™ve got so much useful stuff from your blog and really value you opinion in this stuff.