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Leadership Pairing: Connecting the Right Hand to the Left

August 23, 2015

Superman Let’s dispel a myth at the outset: there is NO Superman–or Superwoman. Created in 1933 (1959 for Supergirl), these are fictional characters who have brought fun and enjoyment to the masses over many decades.

The same concept applies to leaders of organizations and mass movements.

No human being has ever proved to be the omnipresent perfect leader, capable of creating a crystal clear strategic vision; captivating and engaging employees, stakeholders or citizens; serving with rock solid integrity devoid of any deviations; precise and transparent communication; empathy and humor; and humbleness.

It’s a pretty tall order. Sure there are plenty of top leaders in business, government and not-for-profit organizations who have been pretty solid and effective. But we’re human beings, each of us bringing our own baggage to the dance–the result of our upbringing, life experiences and education. Yet we still have huge expectations of those at, or near, the top of the pyramid. Whether in public life or running big companies, we demand that top managerial leaders are nothing short of perfect.

thumbnail Henry Mintzberg (pictured), Cleghorn Professor of Management Studies at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, has a lengthy background in leadership empirical research. From his PhD dissertation over 35 years ago on what managers actually do in the course of carrying out their daily responsibilities to recent research, Mintzberg has remained focused on studying the practical necessities of managerial leadership.

He’s not one to mince words. The long lists of attributes and characteristics of leaders sparked Mintzberg to assert in a CBC Radio interview: “…Superman’s abilities are modest in comparison. We list everything imaginable.”

The late Peter Drucker, the 20th Century’s pre-eminent management thinker, understood the interrelationship between management and leadership. He didn’t believe that management and leadership could be separated, stating it’s “…nonsense, as much nonsense as separating management from entrepreneurship. Those are part and parcel of the same job. They are different to be sure, but only as different as the right hand from the left or the nose from the mouth. They belong to the same body.”

When we consider the demands placed on top leaders in a volatile and increasingly unpredictable world, it’s easy to understand that the individual at the top of the pyramid benefits from a close second-in-command who complements his or her skills. The attributes of leadership need to be interwoven with those of management–the right hand with the left hand.

I’ve written previously on one of the world’s greatest contemporary innovators: Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal, Tesla, SpaceX and Solar City. Musk isn’t the easiest dude to work for. To say he can be a prick would be a complement for this incredibly gifted visionary and hugely impatient CEO and entrepreneur.

Musk’s biggest challenge is to colonize Mars. SpaceX has done spectacularly well in its launches, being the prime supplier of the International Space Station, as well as carrying satellites to geo-synchronous orbit for a variety of organizations. As an acutely impatient visionary, Musk needs someone who fully understands his vision and eccentricities, and who’s able to execute flawlessly on his behalf.

Shotwell Gwynne Shotwell (pictured) doesn’t mince her words. As the Chief Operating Office of SpaceX, she’s on a mission – to Mars. Her boss, Elon Musk, is the most visionary CEO on Planet Earth. Musk is often intolerably difficult and prickly, not only to employees and peers, but experts in the aviation industry, politicians and anyone else who gets in his way.

Shotwell, on the top 100 list of Power Women 2015, graduated from Northwestern University with degrees in mechanical engineering and applied mathematics. She was the seventh employee hired by SpaceX when it was formed in 2002. Previously she was Aerospace Corporation for over 10 years.

Tough and smart as she is, Shotwell also has the ability to bring Musk’s Mars vision from 40,000 feet to ground level to engage and motivate SpaceX employees and new recruits. Her role includes embedding SpaceX’s culture in the hearts and minds of employees, a vital necessity as the company grows larger and competes against aerospace giants. Here she is speaking bluntly to about 100 interns who were brought into the cafeteria (from Ashlee Vance’s book Elon Musk):

“Our competitors are scared shitless of us. The behemoths are going to have to figure out how to get it together and compete. And it is our job to have them die. [In reference to the new Falcon Heavy rocket] Make sure your output is high. If we’re throwing a bunch of shit in your way, you need to be mouthy about it. That’s not a quality that’s widely accepted elsewhere, but it is at SpaceX.

If you hate people and think human extinction is okay, then fuck it. Don’t go to space. If you think it’s worth humans doing some risk management and finding a second place to live, then you should be focused on this issue.”

(If you think Shotwell’s cursing is out of line, then don’t go near Musk since he’s a practitioner of the “F” shot.)

The people in the cafeteria loved it, firing intelligent questions at Shotwell.

That’s engagement.

Sandberg Another example of leadership pairing is what I’ll call the odd couple, where the second in command has a longer resume than the organization’s leader. The irony continues as the founder and top dog exhibited for several years acute immaturity and shyness when facing the public and the media. And then there’s the continuing issue of privacy, an elastic concept in the social media world.

Sheryl Sandberg (pictured) has been a vital asset to Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook. Granted, Zuckerberg for the most part has stopped the profuse sweating, unblinking eyes and robotic behavior that became a trademark of his earlier interviews. Sandberg, 45 years of age, is extremely savvy and an excellent communicator. She’s engaging, smart and highly likeable when interviewed. Her COO position and communications skills have enabled her to divert much of the shitstream that has been aimed at Facebook, from the media to privacy commissioners in Canada and other countries.

When it comes to leading large companies, the public continues to maintain an unreasonable reverence and expectation of the top leader. Consider the mercurial Steve Jobs, who, like Elon Musk, was often brutal on employees and those close to him. Jobs had his weaknesses, in addition to his temperament and immaturity, in terms of running Apple. It’s why Tim Cook, current CEO, rose to prominence from when he was hired in 1998.

Cook’s first role with Apple was Senior Vice President for Worldwide Operations. Focused on reducing manufacturing costs and improving efficiencies, he shut down plants and warehouses, outsourcing these activities to contractors. In 2007, Cook was promoted to Chief Operating Officer, subsequently acting as CEO while Jobs was sick, and then assumed the position of CEO in January 2011. Over the past four years, Tim Cook’s performance has been solid, keeping Apple in its role as a major innovator.

Let’s therefore dispel the myth of CEO as Superman or Superwoman, and acknowledge that organizations function best when the right hand and left hand of the best qualities of top leaders are connected.


What makes Superman a hero is not that he has power, but that he has the wisdom and the maturity to use the power wisely. From an acting point of view, that’s how I approached the part.

– Christopher Reeve (actor)


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Jim Grand Manan FBTake a moment to meet Jim.

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