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FROM THE VAULT: Nice leaders finish last, or do they?

At one point in my career, I worked with an incredibly helpful leader, straightforward but always kind, and who you looked to as someone you wanted at the helm.

Then, this person was promoted to the very top. And it all changed. 

In one of the first meetings with middle management in their new role, they said this in their opener (nearly, or as accurately as I can remember it): “You must work at your very best. The only way you are getting promoted is if your leader quits or they get hit by a bus.” It went downhill from there.


Who told leaders that they had to be assholes to get ahead? What is it with leaders who were FANTASTIC until they weren’t? 

It’s such a bummer to see. 

But the literature and rhetoric around leadership have been the same for so long – nice leaders finish last. 

So what gives? Is this true? I hope I can give you some hope because I believe this tide is turning FAST, and if the next generation of leaders doesn’t change with it, they will be in trouble.

Where does the belief that nice leaders finish last come from?

Agreeableness is one of the big five dimensions generally agreed upon as the building blocks of personality. These big five are:

  • Openness (prefers routine, practical vs. imaginative, spontaneous)
  • Conscientiousness (impulsive, disorganized vs. disciplined, careful)
  • Extraversion (reserved, thoughtful vs. sociable, fun-loving)
  • Neuroticism (calm, confident vs. anxious, pessimistic)
  • Agreeableness (suspicious, uncooperative vs. trusting, helpful)

A number of studies in the nineties and even up to 2012 showed that leaders who display a high level of “agreeableness” tend to make less money.

I was bummed to quickly realize that maybe nice leaders really do finish last?

But here’s the thing about research, it best reflects the attitudes of the time it’s conducted. Sometimes research transcends generations. But, often, it doesn’t. 

I believe the tide is turning. Let me tell you why..

History may not be our best predictor

EVEN removing the pandemic from the cards, the cultural context around work is changing in big ways:

  1. We lead teams amid the messiest and most matrixed organizations society has known. Work is more global, and technology demands that silos come down. Those who can’t innovate and collaborate will be the first to go. This doesn’t happen with command and control.
  2. People are looking to businesses, not government, to address societal problems like climate change and systemic racism and increasingly are choosing places to work based on their beliefs and values.
  3. Brave employees are speaking up more about behavior that runs counter to the idea of being agreeable.
  4. Younger generations seek inclusivity, ethical, democratic leaders who coach them up. They crave feedback.

So when we see studies, even as recent as ten years ago, that say agreeable leaders earn less, I think we should start to be curious.

Because those SAME studies also found things like agreeable leaders:

  • tend to be perceived as more effective by their subordinates.
  • create cohesive teams associated with organizational income growth.
  • are more likely to inspire, motivate, and build high-quality relationships.
  • tend to lead teams that are committed to the organization and have increased cooperation.
  • cultivate environments of higher psychological safety.

Those low in agreeableness are shown to be high in callousness and concerned with their own self-interest.

In today’s workplace, this behavior is being called out. For decades, the main reason CEOs were fired was for financial performance. Today? It’s bad behavior (ethical “lapses” 😒, bullying, sexual misconduct) according to recent research from PwC.

While we bemoan Gen Z for being addicted to their screens, completely self-absorbed, and having no loyalty, their refusal of the status quo will benefit us all. 

And women. The rise in women at the helm isn’t happening fast enoughWomen show higher emotional intelligence and higher agreeableness. But the proportion of CEOs in the top 500 companies in the world took a GIANT leap from 5% to 6% (😳) in the last TEN years. A hell of a lot has changed in 10 years…so companies, boards, and hiring managers best pay attention.

“In our view, a major problem is that even those who express an interest in increasing gender equality, are still largely fixated on fixing women, as if they were to blame for gender inequality, and as if a world in which we force women to behave like men would represent some form of progress. A far more sensible and data-driven approach would be to fix the system.”

Cindy Gallop | in Harvard Business Review

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