Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni: Hey Mr Big, it's not about you

Illustration / Anna Crichton
Illustration / Anna Crichton

Being nice is such an underestimated quality in a person, yet what's so wrong with wanting our various leaders and managers to be simply that: nice?

I'm not talking wimpy nice, hopelessly indecisive nice, or pushover nice. And certainly not "two-track" nice. I'm talking about being a genuinely good and decent person, with that added dimension of vision, and a large dollop of good-work ethic. That's all I and many others ask in our top dogs, yet it seems so hard to come by.

You could say the public asks for its leaders to be gritty, steely. They want someone who they can have a glass of beer with, but who will also swat away unionists, angry ethnic minorities, minimum wage advocates and hippies without a second thought. If you are a powerful woman, there's an added dimension to it: modelling yourself on Margaret Thatcher, say, may ensure a subsection of men find you irresistibly alluring. The meaner, the better, they reckon.

From this, you might surmise that good guys finish last. You might conclude the only time they actually win is when the cynical and power-hungry become so complacent that they are entangled by their own webs of intrigue.

You and I may not really subscribe to it, but astrologers say we are entering a changing time, the Age of Aquarius (and it's nothing to do with frolicking naked in fields of flowers). Some say we've left the Age of Pisces - marked by illusion, fantasy and delusion - and in our new Age, we'll see a battle to end selfish desire and the beginning of genuine free expression.

In business, what that means is that ego-driven leaders are on their way out and egalitarianism, shared knowledge, rationality and inclusivity will be traits we increasingly gravitate towards.

Modern companies have already embraced this trend - Google and Yahoo, for example. But old habits die hard: last year in Forbes, an article by Victor Lipman synthesised studies that found psychopaths are three or four times more common in leadership positions than in the general population. As Lipman puts it, the hallmarks of this personality trait include egocentricity, manipulative and charming behaviour, and a lack of empathy.

Grandiosity - which can be mistaken for vision - as well as other psychopathic traits "are also qualities that can help one get ahead", he says.

But for how long? People with these corrosive tendencies are counter-productive. A bullying blowhard can get results for only so long, before teams implode and stress claims skyrocket.

The Harvard Business Review has looked at recent research suggesting one of the best leadership traits of all is humility. When people witness altruistic or selfless behaviour in their managers and leaders, they feel more kindly disposed towards their work, more engaged - and therefore, of course, more productive.

The type of humility the research points to is pretty simple stuff, especially for a genuinely grounded person: stepping back and empowering others to lead, debating rather than issuing directives, speaking honestly and admitting frailty.

Here, right now, we're stuck with plenty of big swinging dicks in many of our spheres of influence. But society is moving forward and, one hopes, leaving them behind.

- NZ Herald

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Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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