Superbosses: A book review by Bob Morris

SuperbossesSuperbosses: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent
Sydney Finkelstein
Portfolio/Penguin Random House (2016)

Here in a single volume is a “master class in how each of us can make a much greater impact in what we do”

In a previous book, Why Smart Executives Fail: And What You Can Learn from Their Mistakes (2003), Sydney Finkelstein shares what his research reveals about how and why presumably capable business leaders fall so far and fall so fast. “My goal was not only to understand why businesses break down and fail, but to focus on the people behind these failures; not only to understand how to avoid these disasters, but to anticipate the early warning signs of failure. Ultimately, I wanted to move beyond ad hoc explanations of failure on a case-by-case basis and expose the roots of these breakdowns in a definitive way.” He explored how overconfidence, complacency, inaction, “and a lack of curiosity prevented otherwise intelligent leaders from adapting to changing business conditions.” Whereas in that book, Finkelstein and his research associates were in search of failure’s causes, the focus in his latest book is on the causes of what could be described as “super success,” revealed during research begun in 2005.

He explores “the characteristic behaviors of the world’s most effective bosses, upending conventional best practices and presenting a new, comprehensive paradigm for developing talent. This book is the first to offer a systematic, empirically based study of what really motivates, inspires, and enables others to achieve their full, potential. It teaches professionals how to be better bosses so that they can unleash unprecedented creativity, engagement, and accomplishment in their teams, generating and regenerating the world’s best talent. And it shows employees in any field how to identify superposes in their industry so that they can get hired and advance their careers.”

Taking into full account more than a decade of research that preceded this book and several decades of close association with hundreds of C-level executives, Finkelstein suggests that there are three basic types of superboss: “Iconoclasts” (e.g. George Lucas, Lorne Michaels, Ralph Lauren, and Robert Noyce), “Glorious Bastards” (e.g. Larry Ellison, Michael Milken, Roger Corman, and Jay Chiat), and “Nurturers” (e.g. Bill Walsh, Norman Brinker, Mary Kay Ash, and Gregg Popovich). What motivates each type?

Briefly, Iconoclasts “care about their work…so wholly fixated on their vision that they are able to teach in an intuitive, organic way, as a natural outgrowth of their passion and in service to it, rather than consciously or methodically.” Glorious Bastards “have something about them that makes them ‘glorious’: they understand that in order to win, they need the best people and the best teams. They may be egoists, they may want fame and glory for themselves, but they perceive the success of those around them as the pathway to that glory.” As for the third type, “Nurturers are what I’d call ‘activist bosses.’ They are consistently present to guide and teach their protégés and they actively engage with employees to help them reach great heights.”

What do all three types share in common? Finkelstein suggests five attributes: All possess extreme confidence, even fearlessness, when it comes to furthering their agendas and ideas; all are highly competitive; they are by nature inquisitive and imaginative; all superbosses manifest impeccable integrity insofar as their “rather strict adherence to a core vision or sense of self” are concerned; and finally, all are authentic: in their daily interaction with others, “they let their personalities hang out.”

My brief comments thus far merely suggest a few of Finkelstein’s key points. When explaining how exceptional leaders master the flow of talent, he develops those and other insights in much greater depth. His approach is to compare and contrast those he characterizes as a superboss with what are generally viewed as the defining characteristics of a “good but not great” boss. He examines their impact on colleagues (especially protégés), on their company, and — in several instances — on their industry.

These are among the several dozen passages of greatest interest and value to me, also listed to suggest the scope of Finkelstein’s coverage in Chapters One-Eight:

o The Makings of a Superboss (Pages 15-21)
o Iconoclasts, Glorious Bastards, and Nurturers (25-29)
o Memorable Bosses: Five Common Attributes (29-33)
o That Special Something (41-44)
o The Power of Feeling Unthreatened (48-50)
o Perfect Is Good Enough (65-69)
o The Ladder of Confidence (69-71)
o It’s Hard to Go Back to Bering Ordinary, and, Inspiring People Like a Superboss (75-79)
o Protect the “Why” (and Only the “Why”) (84-88)
o Nothing s Sacred (88-92)
o The Show Must Change (94-98)
o Fostering Creativity Like a Superboss (98-101)
o Managing in the Moment (108-112)
o Teaching Like a Superboss (123-126)
o Traders in Opportunity (131-135)
o Hire [the Right] People and Get Out of the Way (135-139)
o The Big Personality Paradox (139-142)
o Crafting the Cult (152-158)
o The Cohort Effect (162-166)
o Team Building Like a Superboss (166-170)

Finkelstein observes, “Ultimately, a superboss doesn’t construct his organization around a specific framework or formula…Instead, superbosses embrace a mind-set of change, within a framework of their unyielding vision. That mind-set leads in turn to the welcoming of creative people into the company, to shared experiences that reinforce openness, to an ingrained culture of openness, and ultimately to a track record of sustained invocation and growth.”

These are among Sydney Finkelstein’s concluding remarks: “In the end, studying these superbosses gives us a master class in how each of us can make an impact [indeed, make a much greater impact] in what we do. Superbosses show us a markedly different and innovative path, one that unites the success of an organization with the people charged with accomplishing that success.” Few executives are both willing and able to become a superboss but all of them can accelerate their personal growth and professional development by reading this book, by completing this “master class,” and then applying effectively what they have learned.

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