Ben or Larry?

min read

Over the past few weeks I have been reading news reports discussing potential candidates to replace Ben Bernanke, the retiring chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. One leading candidate, Larry Summers - a former U.S. Treasury Secretary and president of Harvard, is well known for being polarizing and sometimes abrasive. Summers has his fair share of supporters and detractors alike. What I have found interesting is the discussion of Bernanke’s leadership style and the contrast with that of his would be successor.

Regarding Bernanke.

Every six weeks or so, around a giant mahogany table in an ornate room overlooking the National Mall, the 16 leaders of the Federal Reserve, one after another, give their take on how the U.S. economy is doing and what they want to do about it. Then there's a coffee break. While most of the policymakers make small talk in the hallway, their chairman, Ben S. Bernanke, pops into his office and types out a few lines on his computer. When the Federal Open Market Committee reconvenes, Bernanke speaks from the notes he printed moments earlier. "Here's what I think I heard," he'll say, before running through the range of views. He sometimes articulates the views of dissenters more persuasively than they did.

Contrast with Summers.

Summers rubs a lot of people the wrong way. But the part of Summers that rubs people the wrong way — or at least one part of Summers that rubs people the wrong way — is exactly what his admirers love about him. The experience of taking an idea to Summers, they say, is the experience of having the smartest person you’ve ever met focus intensely and seriously on what you just told them and then give you 10 reasons you never thought of for why it’s idiotic or won’t work or needs revision. And those 10 points are good points. And if you absorb them, and integrate them, you end up with something much better. The people who enjoy that process quickly come to rely on it as a necessary step in their work.

When it comes to CIO leadership, are you a Ben or a Larry? The truth is, that the personal styles of both Ben Bernanke and Larry Summers are a vital part of successful leadership. Successful CIOs are those who are capable of performing both roles while also possessing the emotional intelligence to know when each is appropriate.

But there is much more to successful leadership. As my colleague Hugh Blaine of Claris Consulting has put it – every high achieving team contains a mix of four different types of behavior styles that together create the right mixture for success.

The idea generator – the controller. Someone who focuses on bottom-line results, they have very high standards and are intuitive decision-makers who are often thinking several moves ahead of the rest of the team. Possessing a high need for control, this type of leader likes having options and knowing the results of each choice. Idea generators can be polarizing, as their weakness is listening and ensuring that others feel that their ideas are understood and respected.

The idea promoter – the persuader. Someone who enjoys being with and working with others, they are known for being enthusiastic, for sharing ideas, and for promoting the ideas of others. Seeking to be free of control, rules, and structure, idea promoters are motivated by praise, approval, and popularity. But being a “people person” comes with its own limits, particularly the lack of productivity and organizational confusion that can result from disregarding rules, business processes, and organizational structure.

The idea evaluator – the analyzer. Someone whose prime motivation is quality, accuracy, and perfection, their driving need is to always “get it right” and they use facts, data, and history to do so. Known for their high standards of performance, idea evaluators are precise, systematic, and often work to ensure quality control. Their quest for perfection has its own limits, particularly an inability to make decisions when faced with “gray areas” or an inability to complete work until it is “exactly right”.

The idea fulfiller – the stabilizer. Someone who is characterized by loyalty, dependability, and service; they strive for the approval of others. Idea fulfillers like things to be stable, predictable, and they derive their security from taking tasks from start to completion. But focusing on the needs of others has its own limits, particularly the over commitment that can result from an inability to “say no” when striving to please others.

Each behavior style is critical for successful teams and together they form an essential ingredient for successful projects. When it comes to successful CIOs, they are the ones who have developed the capacity to perform these different roles and they know how to recognize the right circumstances for each. Good leadership is not a matter of choosing to be a Ben or a Larry, but valuing both approaches and knowing when and how to be the right type of leader that your organization needs at just the right time.