December 8, 2014
Do ‘Nice Guys’ Really Finish Last?
We are often led to believe that to make it to the top in organizations, one must be ruthless, or, at a minimum, have a competitiveness and drive that is likely to be seen by others as off-putting or abrasive. The late Steve Jobs, former CEO at Apple, or Al Dunlap former CEO at Scott Paper and Sunbeam, for example, have often been characterized as fiercely competitive, task-focused, and perhaps at times, ruthless as leaders. “Nice guy” is not something that is associated with leaders like Steve Jobs or Al Dunlap.
This raises questions. Do modern leaders need to be ruthless? Do ‘nice guys finish last’? Recent research by Adam Grant suggests otherwise (see http://www.slate.com/articles/business/psychology_of_management/2014/05/adam_grant_s_give_and_take_a_theory_that_says_generous_people_do_better.html).
In his book, Give and Take (http://www.amazon.com/Give-Take-Helping-Others-Success/dp/0143124986), Grant groups workers into three categories: takers, matchers, and givers. Takers think of themselves and are focused on their own self-interest. Matchers seek fairness (e.g., “I scratch your back, you scratch mine”). Givers are selfless, benevolent colleagues. Because of this, givers are able to influence through what Raven and French’s (1959) classical power framework refers to as referent power. This referent power enables Givers to develop a deep and broad social network—expanding their social capital and positioning them to lead organizations for the long-term.
Darwin Smith, the late CEO at Kimberly Clark, epitomizes the selfless leader. He led Kimberly Clark to unprecedented success over a twenty year period from 1971-1991. Highlighted in Jim Collins’ classic, Good to Great, Darwin Smith’s humility and recognition of his people helped explain why Kimberly Clark was a leader in its industry and eventually owned Dunlap’s Scott Paper Company.
As you consider your own leadership approach, don’t hesitate to be nice.
French, J., & Raven, B. (1959). The bases of social power. Studies in social power.
Grant, A. (2014). Give and Take. Penguin Press.
Collins, J. (2001). Good to Great. Harper Business. HarperCollins Publishers: New York.