Can one person singlehandedly provide the leadership an organization requires? Experience tells us no. Successful organizations do not rest on the leadership of a single individual; rather, they are filled with adept leaders who work together to achieve goals. But if one were to look to the leaders of high-profile organizations—Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, to name a few—it would appear as though we’ve developed a fascination with people at the top. Popular business magazines frequently feature a heroic picture of an individual on their covers. This obsession with a singular leader confuses leadership with headship; it oversimplifies the actual concept of leadership, suggesting that if an organization has that one “special” person, all will be well.

In some cases, there are gifted leaders who are, to put lightly, rather idiosyncratic. Their ways of dealing with people are off-putting at least and severely disruptive at worst. If one holds the view of leadership that is equated with headship, this idiosyncratic leader is a disaster waiting to happen. These less-than-desirable qualities are often excused by their high level of innovation, their vision, their public prominence, and their ability to drive revenue. In short, they’re brilliant first and difficult second.

We are paid, as human resources professionals, to identify those leaders who are hard-driving and respectful, confident but not arrogant. Are there wildly successful leaders in the public eye that would not pass this test? Yes, there are some who are legendary for treating people poorly and being dismissive. These individuals bring great benefits to the organization, but there are downsides to consider as well. What are the repercussions of having these visionaries in charge? For one, they have a tendency to “churn and burn” their talent. The business is placed at risk for gaining a reputation as a place that is preoccupied with the leader and fails to develop its people. Furthermore, having a dysfunctional leader can trigger a vicious cycle. “Like attracts like” is an especially apt phrase in this case; jerks will hire jerks, employees will begin to mirror the jerky behavior of their colleagues, and the organization becomes a self-perpetuating breeding ground for bad behavior.

How should the organization compensate for the shortcomings of its head? If one sees leadership as a group phenomenon, then the leadership team is the focus. The question shifts from, “Can this one person lead?” to “Can this team lead?” Of course, at the very extreme, there are leaders who despite their intellectual brilliance or their passion for the mission are undone by how they interact with others. But there are many others whose rough edges do not define their leadership because they have leaders around them who moderate their impact.

What are the implications of adopting an understanding of leadership as a group phenomenon?

  • It changes leadership selection by asking – If we were to promote this person to lead a particular function, how do we alter the composition of the leadership team? A strong functional leader who does not add to the overall strength of the leadership team is a missed opportunity or worse.
  • People become encouraged to make their contribution as a leader unburdened by the “great man” assumption that requires one person to be outstanding in all aspects. It invites a healthy sense of “us” rather than a falsely heroic sense of “me.”
  • It challenges the tendency to equate leadership with headship. It sends a signal throughout the organization that leadership is expected at all levels – executive, operational, and tactical.

One bad apple—or even one with a very human bruise here or there—can still lead effectively with the right team of leaders at their sides. The challenge is to leverage the talents of the idiosyncratic leader and to foster a team that provides the right balance of leadership the organization requires. Do you believe there are other solutions? What do talent managers need to do to best harness these individuals’ talents while not excusing their poor behavior?