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Effective communication and being a good storyteller are among the most important criteria for successful leadership. There is no doubt that a well-plotted story is the strongest means of an intended message, and has a significant impact on people. The stories we hear starting from our childhood evolve in time and space throughout our lives, and continue to inspire us as those authentic, unique, powerful stories we sometimes hear from a leader in our professional life, see in a movie, or read in a novel or biography.

Be that as it may, this phenomenon of “storytelling” has turned rampant in today’s social media-boosted world... It seems that especially the professional development industry has gone as far as identifying it directly with successful leadership. When “there are many stages and soloists, and it all boils down to taking the stage and telling a different story,” you can easily see how overblown stories that business leaders in particular tell their teams to inspire them have become. Add to that the fact that according to global workplace surveys* more than half of the employees are not satisfied with their jobs, and that half of the top executives are not successful, and you will grasp how grim the situation is. It is disbelief that prevails in the companies of leaders that are expected to inspire others, and not motivation!

What, then, lies at the heart of this problem? What are the fables and facts in the definition of a successful leader? What should we do for a more realistic and sustainable professional life and leadership model?

A book I’ve recently read made me revisit my views on successful leadership. I would like to summarize the highlights of what I have read below.


Alright then, while the development industry ranks storytelling among the top leadership traits, let us look at what is happening in the real world. As I have mentioned above, the climate at the workplace is more often than not far from desirable. Despite all the leaders equipped with new competencies, widespread communication means, and management systems that are becoming increasingly sophisticated by the day thanks to technology, motivation in most organizations is quite low: According to a global survey, 30 to 60% of employees consider quitting their job...** The scorecard of leaders assigned to fix this problem is not that bright either: A survey conducted in the U.S. in 2011*** shows that 1 out of 7 leaders in the largest 2,500 companies have been dismissed, and the bigger the company, the higher this figure! Similarly, one survey conducted by an HR company reveals that half of the leaders fail, and that only one out of 4 leaders prepares a team member for succession.


It seems it is worth revisiting the definition of successful. If a leader is the one who guides, who is seen as a role model, and is followed, what would be their traits that first come to mind?

Ideally, the leader is honest, trustworthy, authentic, concerned about the well-being of others, and even modest... This the ideal definition, right? In fact, from a realistic point of view, parts that are fables and those that are facts become apparent:

Leaders are modest!

Are you, too, such a leader, or are you aspiring to be one? Are you sure? Should you ask why, the data, rather than the story, reveals something quite interesting. The aspects of competitiveness and confidence of leadership are rather favorable for narcissistic traits, let alone instilling modesty. A survey conducted with companies that produce high technology in the U.S. revealed that companies with leaders that display more narcissistic traits are more entrepreneurial. Though it might sound a bit pessimistic, there are very few leaders that sport a combination of successful and modest!

Leaders are honest!

But of course! The most critical one, right? Yet, openness and sincerity do not prevail in most organizations. What I am questioning here is whether telling the truth is the norm in organizations, and whether it reinforces success. Because each and every organization/leader “sells” a vision/hope for the future. By its very nature, this involves dreaming, and, to some extent, “bending” the facts. The more this “bending” turns into “misleading”, the more it harms the organization. I think when the stories of the future are plotted the main feat is to support them with concrete figures and evidence. Striving for absolute honesty lies a bit on the utopic side. G. Loveman, who used to be a professor at Harvard, and then started his own business and became very successful, has based his formula of success on the following principle: “if the employers of an organization can easily express what they do not know, if they can discuss failures and learn from them, that organization can make decisions based on data rather than stories, and will be successful.” Can you imagine working in a place like that? “Absolute truth and honesty” is a rare and privileged condition.

Leaders are trustworthy!

The most efficient and effective way of ensuring cooperation in an organization – beyond material gains and net contracts – is for the leader to establish a trust-based environment. And that trust-based environment is built by “keeping promises”. That is exactly the pain point for leaders because keeping your promises limits your options in the ever-changing business world. If leaders break their promise for their own interest, it sticks out badly. However, if it is for the good of the whole organization, one needs to be a bit more flexible about keeping promises.

Leaders are authentic!

Perhaps, this is the most emphasized leadership trait these days – that leaders express their personality and feelings as they are, any time... However, the most critical feature for success in the very volatile business cycle is that leaders can behave “as required by the situation”, i.e. that they can act! Right, and this should be regarded as “making the best of the moment” rather than dishonesty... Which is more important in a serious crisis – whether the leader expresses their feelings, or whether they act with determination that will help overcome the crisis?

Leaders put their teams before themselves!

There is another leadership trend you might have heard about, “servant leadership”, where leaders hold their teams above “anything and anyone”, including clients and shareholders... The essential tools of servant leaders are trust, recognition and empowerment... Makes sense, doesn’t it? Such leaders indeed exist, but the problem is that there are too few of them!


It seems what we need to do is leave aside these inflated stories and idealistic definitions, embrace the weaknesses of human nature, and establish a perspective and management model that is realistic.

The Leader dimension: As Machiavelli states in his The Prince, it is important in which dimension you view the matter at hand. Sometimes behavior that is considered bad might not be that negative if it is for the integrity and wellbeing of the society/organization! It is difficult to handle expectations with regard to absolute good and bad, because there is a very thin line between good and bad, and I think we all have a little of both in our heart! Consequently, leadership should be developed without associating it with the characteristics of absolute heroism.

The System dimension: In fact, for the sustainability of success what is more important is that you create systems that “empower employees” rather than the expectation of a “hero leader”. Just like Deming started the “Quality Movement” years ago...

The Metrics dimension (managing performance by measuring the right things): Neither employee engagement, nor leader behavior and development are still not measured in an adequately detailed and continuous manner today. Another crucial way of increasing engagement at the workplace in a sustainable fashion and independent from the leader is to solve this simple but labor-intensive dimension with the support of new technologies.

In summary, I propose to revisit the success criteria that are deemed necessary for leadership, and the way we view ourselves... I suggest that, to inspire others, we focus on doing what the situation demands, and do the right thing for the organization as a whole... I agree, every organization needs inspiration from its leader, but there is no doubt that we will become more permanent sources for inspiration if we “do what has to be done consistently” rather than tell artificial stories... At the end of the day, when you look at the scoreboard, you will see for sure that one might not be as popular as a leader who is great at telling stories, but that you will be ahead as a more influential and real leader.

Main source: "Leadership BS", Jeffrey Pfeffer, HarperCollins
* Nielsen Company for the Conference Board, 2012
** Mercer survey
*** 12th Global CEO succession report, Booz & Company, 2012.