THE BLOG

Nice Guys Can Win (If They Are Good)

04/17/2014 12:34 EDT | Updated 06/17/2014 05:59 EDT

By Bill Furlong

The idea that you have to be a jerk to win was popularized in 1946, when legendary major league baseball manager Leo Durocher insisted the New York Giants were destined to lose against his Dodgers because they were too nice to have that "killer" instinct.

"Nice guys finish last," the press announced the next day.

Durocher, of course, regretted his comment. "[They made] it sound as if I were saying that you couldn't be a decent person and succeed," he lamented in his autobiography. Nevertheless, the idea that being nice is a handicap in everything from athletics to business persists to this day. And although they may have misquoted him, the reporters who upset Durocher were not totally off base.

The Durocher story is used to introduce "Do Nice Guys -- and Gals -- Really Finish Last?", a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by three academics, including Ivey Assistant Professor Charlice Hurst. It did not argue that acting like a jerk creates promotions and increases pay. But it did conclude that being overly agreeable, which the authors broadly equated with niceness, has a demonstrably adverse effect on income.

There are plenty of real-world examples to support this view. For example, the success of icons like former GE CEO Jack Welch and Apple co-founder Steve Jobs has been attributed to many things, but being nice isn't on the list. However, there is also ample anecdotal evidence that niceness and excellence can co-exist. The careers of Wayne Gretzky in sport, Chris Hadfield in science and Arlene Dickinson in business are good examples.

So does being nice really mean you will finish last?

The simple answer is no, not if you are good at what you do. When it comes to achieving success, keep in mind that how good you are plays a much more important role than how nice you are. Indeed, "being good" and "being nice" are not the same thing -- especially not when it comes to leadership.

The three pillars of leader effectiveness are competencies, character and commitment. When any of the three are deficient, the shortfall will ultimately lead to problems. Leading up to the 2008 financial crisis, for example, there was no shortage of competencies and commitment in the banking sector. But that couldn't make up for shortcomings of character. And while leadership competence and commitment are well understood, leadership character is not.

This led Ivey's Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership to take a deeper look at leadership character in partnership with organizational leaders from outside academia. Together, we identified 11 inter-related dimensions of leadership character: Accountability, Collaboration, Courage, Drive, Humanity, Humility, Integrity, Judgment, Justice, Temperance and Transcendence. By comparing the various strengths and weaknesses of leaders at companies that survived or prospered during the meltdown to those that were badly damaged or failed, we found "Good Leader Character" relies on applying the appropriate strength in all areas. Shortfalls or excesses, left unchecked, turn virtues into vices, ultimately leading to failure.

Using the Ivey framework, we see how problems with "niceness" can occur. A really nice manager deep in humanity might lack the accountability needed to address delicate personnel issues. An overly nice CEO with a strong sense of justice may lack the courage required to make tough restructuring decisions. A very nice director with strong collaboration but relatively weak accountability may deliberately remain silent on potentially controversial issues for the sake of boardroom harmony. These commonly indulged failures represent the abdication of the leader's role. By being too nice, the leader fails to become good.

As Ivey Professor Gerard Seijts discovered while interviewing global leaders for Good Leaders Learn: Lessons from Lifetimes of Leadership, long-term success requires a never-ending and passionate commitment to learning what it takes to be a good leader.

A good example is Narayana Murthy, co-founder and now executive chairman of India's Infosys. Murthy isn't exactly mean. Listed as one of the greatest entrepreneurs of our time by Fortune, he was born into a middle-class Indian family and his company absorbed its values (the importance of education, hard work, decency, honesty, respect for others, and putting the community's interest ahead of the individual) as it set out to become India's most respected company.

"A clear conscience is the softest pillow on which you can lay your head at night," Murthy says, adding, "it is important that all of us try and maintain a clear conscience through fairness, decency and honesty."

Clearly, you don't have to be a jerk to win. So if you aspire to be a successful leader, simply focus on developing all the dimensions of good leadership character. And if you want to be nice to people along the way, go right ahead.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bill Furlong is an Executive-in-Residence at Ivey Business School at Western University in London, Ont. Previously he was a Vice Chair at TD Securities. He can be reached at bfurlong@ivey.uwo.ca.