There are no authoritative inventories of traits that make people either good leaders or successful in business. In honour of 404 Error Day, Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert discusses how we all delude ourselves when we want things to be true that aren’t — and never will be.
Two weeks ago, I said that I preferred LinkedIn over most other social media platforms because it’s oriented towards business (as opposed to trying to make your acquaintances jealous). One thing that LinkedIn users frequently do that makes my blood absolutely boil is to re-post/endorse/share pithy listicles that purport to be business-related, while actually containing nothing but drivel. If you’ve used the site recently, then you’ve probably seen several variations on these titles:
‘7 Attributes of Extremely Powerful People’
‘11 Traits All Successful People Have’
‘29 Features Shared By All Powerful CEOs’
These articles infuriate me because they’re utter balderdash. I have a hard time not getting angry with the people posting them. It helps to remember that the posters almost certainly have no idea at all that what they’re endorsing is fabricated nonsense. They meant well. That’s worth some forbearance. The content they’re sharing is still vacuous BuzzFeed-y clickbait – nothing will change that – but the people keeping it in play probably don’t realize that.
The reason that these lists resonate is because people in general are eager to find simple answers in an increasingly complex world. People want to be successful. We’ve cultivated a myth that being a fully-realized adult means getting rich, owning a mansion, driving a luxury car, posing for selfies on a yacht and so on. We have television, movies, magazines and Facebook reference standards for what constitutes having ‘made it’. We’ve been force-fed the insidious lie that everyone can achieve success, if only they do X. Everyone can become rich, no matter where a person started out in life. 
Therefore, when a person’s realized workplace success doesn’t measure up to their expectations, it inspires confusion and resentment. This is normal. People grow anxious, apprehensive and even angry over the gaps between their manifested reality and their expected reality. So, they ask the obvious question: ‘can I still be the success that I think I should be?’ and then look around social media for reassuring answers. Enter the soothing balm that is the modern myopic listicle.
All successful people have these traits, the lists claim. All of them. Every single successful person. If you’ve ever heard about a successful person anywhere, he or she had these traits. Do you?
The harried reader then scrolls through the veague and shallow list and finds one or more traits that they identify with. I have that trait, they think. Therefore, I possess the necessary components required to be successful just like this other person! It’s not that I’ve failed; the problem is that the universe hasn’t caught up and rewarded me commensurate with my essential characteristics. Ergo, I will be rich too, just as soon as the cosmic bookkeepers catch the error. Problem sorted!
This sort of self-congratulatory pseudo-logic gives many readers a reassuring feeling of validation, specifically: ‘I’m going to be okay.’ It’s all going to work out. So, when they re-post one of these sugary rah-rah pieces with an endorsing comment like ‘So true!’ or ‘I agree!’ what they’re often doing is putting their doubting friends and family members on notice that they’re wrong. The poster shares 1+ traits with Celebrity X, therefore they’re functionally interchangeable with Celebrity X. Nyah!
It’s all nonsense. Case in point: Richard Feloni’s 2014 essay for Business Insider titled ‘11 Traits All Successful Leaders Share.’ Among his eleven ‘insights’  was ‘They work by a plan.’ Zounds! A plan? Successful people employ planning? Well, shoot… (thinks the upwardly-mobile reader) I, too, sometimes work according to a plan. Therefore (by the transitive property of wish-fulfilment), I am just like Andrew Carnegie and will therefore be just as successful in my role as an Apprentice Business Requirements Analyst in rural Swindon as Mr Carnegie was a century ago as the industrial tycoon running a multibillion-dollar global steel conglomerate. It’s all going to be okay.
That’s as specious an argument as applying last month’s Australian Grand Prix as a benchmark. ‘Let’s see… (the thinking goes) Nico Rosberg’s winning car had four tyres, a steering wheel and a V6 engine. My mingy old people carrier has four tyres, a steering wheel and a V6 engine. We share the same traits! Therefore, I can win a Formula 1 Grand Prix driving my people carrier.’
I can see that sort of tortured logic serving as the premise for a new Top Gear film, but it just doesn’t fly in reality. ‘Characteristics’ (or traits or attributes or whatever) are not alchemical components that one can drop into a simple recipe in order to brew up success. Real people are complex, flawed, inconsistent, often contradictory and almost always incomplete creatures. Work cultures are every bit as broken. Nothing is guaranteed in working life other than the insidious influence of random chance.
Now, before you start feeling offended by the implications of this argument – who does this holier-than-thou American journalist think he is? – please consider this: I freely admit that I’ve been every bit as guilty of having fallen victim to this logical fallacy as everyone else. I made this mistake, too, and it cost me dearly. Thanks to some timely professional feedback, I did come out the other side of the experience a slightly wiser (and much more cynical) leader.
Here’s what happened: when I was relatively new to the Air Force, I was assigned command of a small IT support unit. Think of it as the IT department in your company, only everybody dressed the same and there was a great deal more vulgarity. Otherwise, it was (for all practical purposes) exactly the same as what you’ve experienced from the IT shop in your corporate experience.
The organisational structure that I inherited had (at the time) two major branches that were each headed by a senior Non-Commissioned Officer. Both senior men reported directly to me. I inherited a pair of NCO leaders that my predecessor had selected. Many angry stakeholders warned me that one of my two senior NCOs was a complete dirt-bag. The fellow was a crook, they said. He was a shyster, a bigot… an all-around cancer corrupting the heart of the unit. I needed to purge him as soon as circumstances allowed.
I listed to everyone’s advice, but I also wanted to be sure that I was being fair to the fellow. I knew that the previous commander had darned near run the unit into the ground. The place was rife with racial unrest, sexist conduct, theft, graft, entitlement fraud, personality conflicts, et al. I wanted to give all of the unit’s members a fresh start, so that those troopers who wanted to serve honourably could. I felt strongly that every one of the troopers deserved a fair chance to succeed.
When it came to my branch NCO, I suspected that his performance problems had come about because he’d originally been placed in an untenable position. His superiors had actively undermined him in his role. He’d been given a bunch of problem cases to deal with but wasn’t given the authority that he needed to correct their conduct. One of his men was actively trying to incite racial unrest between the workers. Given all of the complications, I figured this NCO was overwhelmed, and that was why he wasn’t performing up to his potential.
Further, I (mistakenly) thought that I’d recognized a little of myself in him. We’d both come to the Air Force from the Army. We’d internalized the Army’s values and therefore we’d both had trouble assimilating into USAF culture. More importantly, we’d both had the Army’s principles of leadership thoroughly drilled into us. I’d internalized the Army’s gospel of big-L Leadership, and assumed that my NCO had as well.
When I moved into the commander’s corner office, one of the first books that I put on my desk was the 1990 edition of Army Field Manual 22-100, Military Leadership, and a bunch of other Army manuals that I’d collected during my time as an NCO and junior officer. I’d memorized the Army’s 16 leadership attributes, and tried to judge people according to that hallowed rubric.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but pre-Iraq War Army leadership doctrine was undermined by some pretty serious fundamental problems. As Col. Christopher Paparone wrote in the January-February 2004 edition of Military Review:
‘Army doctrine developers seem to be confused about what leadership is. They define leadership in a unidirectional or managerial way; that is, as a quality associated with position and rank rather than influence with followers. The manager is interested in substantive outcomes (goals achievement, mission performance measures and allocations of resources). However, leadership is more about symbolic outcomes (sentiments, beliefs, attitudes, satisfaction, values and commitment).’
Early on in my command tour, I was trying to evaluate my subordinates based on the characteristics-focused model that I’d been taught. Did they have personal integrity? Did they have physical and moral courage? And so on. Check the boxes. The Army’s mindset was that all soldiers should be taught the desired behavioural standards. Leaders should demand that soldiers strive to achieve them, and soldiers should strive to live up to them. Everything thereafter would sort it self out. You can almost see the genesis of BuzzFeed in the Army’s thought process.
I assessesed my NCOs on the Army’s leadership standard and found that all of them fell short of the ideal, but that each NCO exhibited at least some of the desired characteristics. That suggested that they had the raw material needed to become what the service needed them to be, provided they worked at overcoming their own weaknesses. I earnestly wanted all of them to succeed.
I discovered very quickly that a fistful of attributes does not a leader make. My problem NCO possessed a great deal of technical acumen, strong charisma, a healthy sense of humour and unimpeachable physical courage. I once watched him throw himself bodily under a teetering battery cabinet to save the lives of two distracted electrical workers. He had enough raw material to work from, I told myself. He just needs to want to succeed. If he just applies himself, he can become a solid and respectable leader.
So, I constantly forgave the man his failures and offered him chance after chance to turn his failing career around. I struggled to find ways to inspire him. I saw his borderline criminal conduct, his contemptuous refusal to enforce discipline, his incessant disrespectful conduct and his complete absence of loyalty as lingering echoes of the bad sergeant that he used to be, and not as evidence of his actual, fundamental character. I wanted to believe in his redemption so badly that I blinded myself to who he really was – and I refused to accept the notion that he would never willingly change.
Another senior NCO took me to task over this one evening over a friendly drink.  He quite rightfully chastised me for making the rest of the unit suffer while I repeatedly tried to persuade a stone to roll uphill. There was absolutely no question that I deserved the bollocking; the older sergeant said out loud what I’d been privately suspecting for some time. The Army’s alchemical formulation for personal growth was all wishful thinking and twee nonsense. The doctrine writers had meant well, but they hadn’t grounded their teaching in any sort of behavioural science. Following their doctrine had meant that all of us were needlessly suffering an unrepentant fool.
This is, unfortunately, the essence of human nature. We want to believe things so badly that we refuse to accept the evidence in front of us, even when the evidence clearly reveals that we can’t have what we want. Sharing an attribute with a famously successful person is no more likely to influence your personal success than the colour of your trousers will. All of those lauded attributes – integrity, perseverance, cheerfulness, etc. – may positively influence your shot at overall success, but they’re not deterministic. If you work hard and struggle to be a good person, success may come. Or it might unfairly pass you by in favour of the complete jerk in the next cubicle. It’s an ideal, not a formula.
I recommend that people take all of those goofy listicles as well-intended suggestions. I recommend that everyone commit him- or herself to being the best person that they can be within reason, given the totality of circumstances. Take advantage of the opportunities that come your way, and don’t waste energy cursing at the universe when things don’t work out the way that you they ‘should’.
Those listicles aren’t teaching facts; they’re only making suggestions. Read them if you like, or don’t… but whatever you choose, don’t turn around and share the damned things on social media. The rest of us are trying to soldier on, and we don’t need any more useless fluff in our lives. If we feel the need to consume some heartwarming content, the internet is already saturated of kitten videos.
 Which is utter and absolute rubbish, but that’s an argument for another day.
 Not his own insights; he article was about Napoleon Hill’s 1908 interview with Andrew Carnegie.
 I’d introduced an old Army regimental tradition to my senior leaders. At the conclusion of muster, and after all of the troopers had left the base, my senior leaders would join me in my office. I’d crack open a new bottle single malt. We’d all toast the honour of the unit. From that moment on (until we agreed that we were finished) anyone could say anything that they liked with no fear of insubordination or retaliation.
Title Allusion: Marlon Brando’s classic One-Eyed Jacks (1961 Film)
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.