The boat race: Competent Jerks and loveable fools

April 6, 2014

Seven years ago, Cambridge introduced a teamwork theory into their boat-race planning. Leaders we deserve assessed whether the ideas held water

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The post in Leaders we deserve described how the theory was supposed to work.

The news was picked up by the media noting that Cambridge Coach Duncan Holland has been assisted by Mark de Rond from Cambridge’s Judge Business School.

Mark is an American strategy theorist who is tipping his toe into more behavioral waters here (I can’t get away from aquatic imagery at the moment).

Competent Jerks and loveable fools

The basic idea, by Casciano and Lobo, originated in the prestigious Harvard Business Review last June. Their work examines the relationships between managers with differing levels of competence and of likeability. Details of the work can be found in a summary by Asia one Business AsiaOne Business:

The authors studied four organisations – one which is profit-motivated, one non-profit, another large and the fourth, small. No matter which organisation they studied, they found that everybody wanted to work with a lovable star and nobody wanted to work with an incompetent jerk. They say things got more interesting when people faced the choice between competent jerks and lovable fools … surprise, surprise, the two researchers found out that the reverse was true in the four companies they analysed.

“Personal feelings played a more important role in forming work relationships – not friendships at work, but job-oriented friendships – than is commonly acknowledged, even more important than evaluations of competence.”
The competent jerks represent an opportunity for the organisation because so much of their expertise is discounted.

Since the original post, Oxford has won four out of six contests. Today’s race is considered too close to call.


Authentic Leadership and the Mask of Command

October 12, 2009

Mask of command

Almost by definition, a leader has intentions of influencing the behaviours of other people. This is often associated with personal ambition. Which prompts the question: How might we assess a leader’s authenticity through their examining their actions?

In recent years, a popular leadership concept is that of the authenticity of leaders in their actions and public pronouncements. For example, a recent article in Harvard Business Review examines authentic leadership. Its author, Jim Heskett, traces the term back to Warren Bennis, one of the all-time greats of leadership thinking.

Bennis raises questions about the nature of leadership … can a leader be authentic, or do the masks of command force the leader to be something other than his or her true self? Can a leader both act and be real?

Heskett introduces the idea of a leader’s moral compass. That is a term which is suffering through over-use particularly in political circles by leaders claiming the high ground of moral rectitude.

There’s more to authenticity …

Recipes for authetic leadership can be found in many popular books on personal development. Too often they are offered as checklists to be followed. Professor Heskett takes a more grown-up approach. He introduces the realistic situation in which a leader is aware of the need to reassure and comfort others under difficult or even extreme conditions. The mask of command requires a leader to appear confident when all seems lost. How does that sort of performance stack up with notions of authenticity?


Are some leaders able to navigate a managerial life without being authentic to their organizations or to themselves? In fact, are there times when it is necessary to avoid being authentic?

Some people take the view that any display of command demonstrate that a dramatic performance is going on. To them, such behaviour is phoney. Others are less dismissive of role-playing in public life.

As the general manager of a small company I am currently faced with this exact dilemma. In less than 12 months, business has gone down 46%, production is running at 12% capacity, the warehouse full and I am worried and scared. 25 people look up to me, every day, probably questioning every decision made, worried to death about their future and I see fear in their eyes. The question is not if the command mask can coexist with authentic leadership, but rather how it can not. I can not afford not to wear a mask of everything will be okay or chaos would soon follow.

So what do you think?

The mask of command is a term borrowed from the title of book by the English military historian John Keegan. He was interested in political leaders and dictators. But the concept has wider application into business and other areas of activity such as sport.
I rather suspect that Professor Heskett is working from behind the mask of the professional academic concealing his own views to encourage us to think for ourselves. Which is a mask I rather think I should be borrowing as well.