The aura of success has been influencing us since time immemorial. No wonder successful people have scaled the heights because of who they are. We think we don’t have the innate quality of scaling success; thus, we believe that following those courageous outliers will make us successful. The fallacy of this linear model of following them is that our idols are not ideal; they are as imperfect as we are. Indeed, they changed the world, pioneering new possibilities, but their stories are not always smooth-sailing ones. While on the one hand, experts acknowledge their greater self-awareness, emotional regulation, and the ability to treat uncertainty as an opportunity, on the other hand, they are often criticized for their unconventional personality traits.
Successful sportsmen, executives, politicians, actors, etc., not only endure immense pain and deal with sleepless nights but also make their way through utter isolation, loneliness, and depression. From their perspectives, “success” seems to be a tunnel of an endless conundrum. While success is always contextual, the following six personality traits stand in stark contrast with the glorified archetypes of success.
• Being Adamant
Success requires long-term endurance, not momentary thrust. Across the ages, determination has been critical in shaping successful people’s vision. From Galileo to J. Robert Oppenheimer, Walt Disney to Jeff Bezos, a never-die attitude fuels their courage to defy norms. Adamance is instrumental in steering determination. Champions are very firm people who have the conviction to do whatever it takes to reach their goal. Their relentless thriving to achieve a bigger purpose inspires them to resist physical and material temptations.
After Virgin Cola had badly suffered in the U.S. and had gone out of shelves, the Founder of the Virgin Group, Richard Branson, ensured placing purpose at the center of his business ventures. The loss against Coca-Cola could not engulf his entrepreneurial mindset and he fought hard to establish his later endeavors, as we see in the success of Virgin Mobile, Virgin Blue, and Virgin Galactic.i
Being adamant helps achievers believe in themselves, face the challenges, and fearlessly strive to achieve their goals. Stubbornly holding on to the decisions without surrendering to factors like luck enables them to think beyond traditional belief systems and endure hardships during the journey of excellence.
• Being Arrogant
Their boldness complements their adamance. Often, for them, arrogance—considered a despicable quality—is supreme confidence. They know how to use their arrogance to their advantage. Over time, they have learned ways to not tolerate incompetence, gradually crafting their arrogance as they become extremely efficient and competent. Thoughts coming from them could be too bold for many.ii
Many top CEOs are known for their ruthlessness and socially dominant behavior. Name anyone—Mark Zuckerberg, Evan Spiegel, Jack Dorsey, Elon Musk, and so on. Their bold sense of self helps them make firm decisions. Steve Jobs was infamous for his ruthlessness toward employees; he would fire them without any prior notice or severance pay.
In reality, situations wherein it’s easy for us to get overwhelmed, arrogance, as an armor, empowers achievers to break the glass and march forward. Arrogance helps us prioritize our battle, especially when many of us fumble to strike a balance between competing priorities.
• Meticulously Micromanaging
Most of us conjure up the image of a micromanager while talking about a toxic work environment. From decreasing productivity, lowering team morale to loss of trust, the list goes on. However, delving deeper, we sense a thin line between micromanagement as a skill to inculcate a growth mindset and as an exasperating factor.
Leaders like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have deployed micromanagement to stay at the helm. Mr. Musk tracks progress obsessively. He schedules his entire day in five-minute slots that include his lunch break too, irrespective of the project he works on.iii At times, precision of delivery becomes so important that CEOs adopt innovative ways to monitor projects at a granular level. The CEO of Nintendo, Shigeru Miyamoto, has a strange and equally interesting way of measuring every object by tape.iv Also, he measures every single task to understand its preciseness.
Having the capacity of watching over everything and having control over every single step of the operation help them empathize with peers that, in turn, enable them to discover the strengths and weaknesses of their teams. They, thus, better understand how to delegate a task, whom and when to push, whom to give space, and when to step back. They enjoy delving into the root of a problem and finding a solution.
Steve Jobs was popular for his fine eye for detail. He plunged into the minutest of details, from the design of the products to their slogan and logo. In the biography of Steve Jobs, while talking about Job’s passion for designing Apple’s new headquarters, Isaacson wrote, “Over and over he would come up with new concepts, sometimes entirely new shapes, and make them restart and provide more alternatives.”v
Micromanagement is also evident in start-ups. Start-up CEOs often strike a balance between perfection and coverage through meticulous vigilance. Micromanagement can enable a reliable and seamless transition to decentralized decision-making. Probably, start-up CEOs are nano-managers. They get into the detail of every step not to track or control underperformers per se, but to give them detailed guidance and constructive feedback so that the challenge ahead becomes easier to deal with. They want employees to stretch their limits, and this is when the magic happens.
Moreover, it is always important for a leader to know about their followers. Beyond the traditional archetype of control, micromanagement serves an unconventional purpose of understanding micro-level dynamics in their journey to become successful.
• Embracing Controversy
People tend to avoid conflicts and go with the majority opinion. On the contrary, successful people drift from the safer way of getting along and find unconventional solutions to establish contentious decisions. The former GE CEO, Jack Welch, is known for his blunt response. Some reviled his frank feedback. At a conference, Jack Welch had established his candor as an act of kindness as he said:
What would happen if for years and years you don’t tell someone that the are underperforming, not giving them the chance to try to improve, check whether they can do something else in the company, or alternatively look for somewhere else And then recession comes, and you need to fire the person, older and unprepared, in a much tougher market?vi
What would happen if for years and years you don’t tell someone that they are underperforming, not giving them the chance to try to improve, check whether they can do something else in the company, or alternatively look for somewhere else? And then recession comes, and you need to fire the person, older and unprepared, in a much tougher market?vi
Successful persons have no other choice than to embrace controversy, at times, to accomplish their objectives. From exploiting loopholes in the system to bypassing sanctions (Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard), from stealing ideas from the dearest to hacking private accounts to get insider information to enslaving user minds, executives haven’t left any stones unturned to stay ahead in the fiercely competitive business world. Some have gone to the extent of overthrowing the government to get favorable deals.
The world before these top executives took over was not free of biases or unethical practices either. The renowned Greek philosopher Aristotle once stood in favor of slavery, which is anything but an enemy today. He not only defended the practice but also tried to shed light on how it could benefit the slaves! Perceived as a sexist today, his work also mentioned that women were incapable of authoritative decision-making. However regressive and backward, Aristotle attentively set his controversial prejudices aside from his core valuable contributions to the philosophical development of the society that we study today.
When it comes to building on one’s vision, life demands one to be ruthlessly self-centered, so much so that external controversies fail to digress a person from seizing opportunities.
• Being Authoritarian
The unconventional way of working of high achievers, often, demands an authoritative personality. Authoritarian Leadership style roots back to the numerous merciless rulers this world has seen, such as Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, and Adolf Hitler. Their persuasion skills and control over the public are till the day considered glorious.
In politics, an arena that hardly offered a level-playing field for women, Indira Gandhi, the first and to date the only woman Prime Minister of India, stood apart for her independent and bold decision-making. When convicted of electoral misconduct and barred from contesting elections for the next few years, a resolute Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency instead of resigning. Had it not been her bold decision-making authority, neither would she have been the crusader of the Green Revolution nor would India have become a dominant power in South Asia during her premiership.
Often people who have worked under autocratic managers complain that this kind of leadership style hurts the morale of the team and leads to resentment. It impairs the creative thought process and stifles the work environment. But while we remain busy loathing leaders because of their authoritative behavior, they drive their organizations to success because of their firm actions.
Many of the world’s top C-suite executives tend to be autocratic because it enables them to make quick decisions, especially in stress-filled situations. Most of the time, they are required to give inputs without consulting with their peers and this autocratic style makes them adept to take effective measures in complex business scenarios.
Strong authoritative leaders take charge and delegate easily, keeping the goals in mind. This style also provides a clear direction to the workgroups and improves the communication channel as there remain fewer chances that a message gets lost. Employees benefit from the supreme competency level of the leader and push themselves to meet the goals.
• Behaving Uncannily
Successful are those who not only know their aim well but also understand how to get the work done. From behaving rudely, not treating peers well to verbal abuses, accomplished bosses know just what works best for their end-goal. Because of their ability to understand people, they have cracked the most complicated success codes of personal and professional lives.
Extremely inspirational leaders are driven by strong self-belief and self-identity. Jeff Bezos is known for his “Two-Pizza” rule.vii He made a point that meetings where a couple of pizzas are enough to feed all the attendees result in more effectiveness. He also puts an empty chair portraying it to be a customer in front of the board members during board meetings to make them more intimate.
Actors and directors are also known for stepping above and beyond to let out the best of performances. Alejandro González opted to shoot his film The Revenant in the wilds of Calgary in Canada to provide a fully immersive experience, where temperatures regularly dropped below -25oC.viii Excellence of the award-winning director was complemented by the commitment of his lead actor, Leonardo DiCaprio, who despite being a vegetarian, chew on raw bison liver and also dived into sub-zero waterfalls to portray realistic performances on camera.
Truly, Success is an enigma in itself.
Though the world of achievers looks jazzy from outside, it isn’t always that shiny inside. But then, what keeps them going? Their obsession with goals is so strong that even the scariest of blows can’t deter them from chasing those goals. They find ways to cope with the challenges of life.
It is high time we, the followers of “success stories,” also understand that a set personality template cannot lead to success. The relationship between negative traits and success is not always a causal one. Successful people have been constantly found to be more open to experiences, while exercising their strong locus of control. When they reach the heights, they become “aware” of their not-talked-about “qualities.” And that’s the open secret behind a success story.
With inputs from my mentee Ushasi Sengupta.