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We don’t need more ‘Superbosses’

I have spent a good chunk of my life working with well-known bosses. I noticed quite a while ago that, unlike me, an awful lot of them seem to get up very early in the morning. I often dread asking for a meeting and being told to meet for breakfast at 6.15 am…

The Economist picked up on this theme and told us recently of a straw poll of executives attending that annual festival of chest-thumping, the World Economic Forum at Davos. The informal survey revealed that 90 per cent of senior folk said they woke up before 6 am on weekdays.

It does seem to be a thing, this habit of movers and shakers getting up before the birds. Should the rest of us be worried? Should we move quickly to shake the cobwebs from our eyes and join the driven, so that we, too, can be super-achievers?

Wait. Before you rush to throw the covers off early tomorrow morning, realize also that these Superbosses don’t just wake up early; they also claim to do astonishing things like hitting the gym, doing some mindfulness meditation and yoga, or para-gliding and surfing when there’s an ocean handy. And they can take a conference call while emailing a cabinet secretary and simultaneously handing down tough decisions to lesser beings.

So refrain from mimicking these godlike creatures. That’s why they are at the top of the tree, and you are not. You are not worthy, and will only embarrass yourself. Snooze on, while they make the world go round.

Of course, you might entertain some suspicions. Like: is every high-achiever out there really an early-rising, tread-milling multitasker? Or is that just a role they play? Is there a stereotype at work here, and do CEOs feel compelled to live up to it?

You might also be forgiven for wondering: if superhuman behaviour is what’s needed at the top, why aren’t our nations and corporations in better shape? Why do so many lurch from strategic missteps to failed mergers, from insane growth plans to painful turnarounds?

My advice to bosses, when they ask for it, is very different. Get a full night’s rest as often as you can. Your judgement goes and your temper frays when you are burning the candle at both ends. As The Economist pointed out, “working around the clock is probably a sign that you are incapable of delegating, not that you are an invincible hero.” And “frenetic multi-tasking…is a formula for distraction, rather than good management.”

There’s a more serious risk to worry about. Why do we set up our companies so that only demigods and superhumans can run them? Listen to Peter Drucker: “No institution can possibly survive if it needs geniuses or supermen to manage it. It must be organised in such a way as to be able to get along under a leadership composed of average human beings.”

I think we’ve had enough of organizations run by larger-than-life heroes, whether mythical or real. We’ve seen enough of corporations that do miraculously well when the hero boss is in charge, then crash painfully when the hero retires. That isn’t success; it’s momentary elevation. And we’ve certainly had our fill of long-standing supermen who never let go of the reins, who labour under the delusion that only they can lead, and must do so for life.

The cult of the Superboss makes us fixate on individuals rather than institutions. We await messiahs to haul us up instead of hauling ourselves up. We buy the myth of the super-being, and sit around waiting to be saved.

Proper, long-lived success is not about the meteors that fill the sky briefly; it is about a warm, self-perpetuating glow. For that, you need repeated patterns of success: a way of working that can be repeated and replicated. You also need people who aren’t just frantically doing the same old stuff every day, but can have moments of deep contemplation and lateral thinking. That doesn’t happen often if your typical day is just one long flurry of meetings, emails, conference calls and reviewing board papers.

In my experience, those who work well and work hard just get on with it in their own way. There are many, many pathways to success. Some do it frantically; others more contemplatively. Be true to yourself, be the best version of yourself, and succeed in your own style.

(Sunday Nation, 7 February 2016)

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