What Makes a Silicon Valley Leader?

Academics exploring leadership of emerging companies in the US have suggested a variety of frameworks for classifying and explaining “leadership styles”.  Inc. focused on four strategies—directive, participative, laissez-faire and adaptive—and suggested that the dynamic environment in which emerging companies operated required that leaders be able to apply each of the styles at the appropriate moment.  A PsychTests study of more than 7,000 top-performing leaders, including leaders of firms other than emerging companies, confirmed the advice from Inc. by finding that the most effective leadership style in terms of firm performance could best be described as “eclectic” and incorporated elements of four other distinct leadership styles identified in that same study:  the “sports coach”, the driver-director, the mentor, and the “country clubber”.  An article in Fast Company described the menu of leadership styles developed by Goleman in his 2000 study of mid-level managers: pacesetting, authoritative, affiliative, coaching, coercive, and democratic.  Obviously the apparent ability to identify and describe a particular leadership style does not mean that it is effective or used as often as it should be. For example, Goleman found that his pacesetting and coercive styles typically produced a negative impact on leadership effectiveness and that his coaching style, which he argued could be quite effective, was often kept on the shelf by leaders who feared it would take too long to apply.  Complicating the area even further is that argument of researchers such as Kets de Vries that companies can no longer look to a single omnipresent ruler but must instead recognize that success is tied to creating and maintain a team of self-aware executives that learn how to work together to apply "distributive, collective, and complementary leadership."  Kets de Vries suggested that the “leadership team” have the capability to carry out eight different archetypical roles including strategist, change-catalyst, transactor, building, innovator, processor, coach, and communicator.

The extraordinary financial and inventive success of Apple, and the death of its iconic leader Steve Jobs, has served as a platform for a robust debate about whether or not Jobs should be lauded for his leadership practices and style.  Williams, writing for Psychology Today, noted that many management consultants, academics and business leaders had applauded Job for his work as a “leader” and pointed to research conducted among the heads of Silicon Valley companies that showed meaningful support for Jobs’ often abusive behavior as necessary for building a financially successful company (i.e., the “ends justifies the means”).  Williams, who described Jobs’ leadership style as autocratic, egotistical and lacking in transparency and generally based on an old-style “carrot and stick” approach, suggested that “claiming Steve Jobs was a great leader smacks more of hero worship than an objective view of what a great organizational leader should be and do” and warned that “extolling his virtues to a new generation of up-and-coming leaders would be a serious mistake”.  He also pointed to research that, Apple notwithstanding, an abusive leadership style is not the road to optimal bottom line performance.

Other well-known Silicon Valley-based companies have also generated commentary regarding the leadership styles that have been used to build their organizations.  Thompson has written that Google has attempted to avoid excessive oversight of employees and provide them with substantial leeway, and resources, to develop new ideas that they might think of on their own.  Critics have scoffed at the efficacy of this approach from a financial perspective, arguing that most of the new products that have been developed have not been successful; however, it appears that the system has produced important intangible benefits in the form of a workforce that feels “personally invested in the company's sense of mission and future success”.  According to Manimala and Wasdani the five key precepts of the leadership practices of Eric Schmidt, Google’s Chief Executive Officer, were “get to know your employees, create new ways to reward and promote your high-performing employees, let your employees own the problems you want them to solve, allow employees to function outside the company hierarchy, and have your employees’ performance reviewed by someone they respect for their objectivity and impartiality”.  Manimala and Wasdani  also reported that an internal Google research team headed by the Laszlo Bock, Google’s senior executive for human resources, had identified the follow eight qualities among the best and most-effective leader-managers within the company: “be a good coach, empower your team and don’t micromanage, express interest in your team members’ success and well-being, be productive and results-oriented, be a good communicator and listen to your team, help your employees with career development, have a clear vision and strategy for the team . . . [and] . . . have technical skills so you can advise the team”.

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