Liz Wiseman on why people love working for demanding bosses

“When I looked at how people talked about great managers, not all of them were nice people, but all of them were loved”

“Multipliers” author Liz Wiseman.

“Multipliers” author Liz Wiseman. “We love the people who bring out our best.”

The president of The Wiseman Group and author of Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter spoke with editor in chief James Cowan to explain why great bosses don’t need to be loved (but often are anyway).

In your book, you talk about leaders who inspire their teams to become greater than the sum of their parts—multipliers—and leaders who fail to capitalize on their teams’ talents—or diminishers. You also worked with Larry Ellison, who founded Oracle and has a reputation as a tough boss. Was he a multiplier or a diminisher?

I had a phenomenal experience working with Larry Ellison. Larry is as advertised—he is as aggressive and sharp-minded as the press portrays him. You might look at the way he leads and see some diminishing characteristics, but as one of my colleagues said, if Larry trusted you, there was no greater multiplier. If he didn’t trust you, then it’s a different story. And you know, I felt incredibly trusted. At Oracle, I was given irresponsible levels of responsibility and support. Larry is an incredible learner. I’ve been in meetings with him where I watched him ask questions and listen and learn, but I’ve also seen him be kind of tough and rough with people. So my experience has been extremely positive, and it actually helped me to see why it is that some people are multipliers and some are diminishers. But there are others who would say he was an absolute diminisher to them.

It’s interesting because Apple’s Steve Jobs also had a reputation as a tough boss, maybe too tough. But he also inspired plenty of people to do their best work.

And I think Larry is like that. He and Steve were, I think, very good friends, and I think they have very similar styles in some ways. But it’s what you see in founder CEOs.

To be a multiplier, do you need to be warm and fuzzy, or can you be a little bit tough?

Like an SOB?


I think so. In fact, one of my perpetual worries is that people will assume that a multiplier is this kind of empowering, encouraging, trusting, soft kind of leader. My publisher’s reaction to my manuscript was, “Wow, these aren’t cupcakes-and-kisses kinds of leaders. These are really hard-edged leaders.” Not all of the multipliers I studied were people I would consider to be really nice. They weren’t the kind of leaders who would come up and put their arm around me and say, “Oh well, Liz, we just appreciate you.” They were leaders who asked me to do really hard things and then stepped back and let me struggle a little bit. They were demanding and intolerant of mediocrity. And when I looked at how people talked about their multiplier leaders, not all of them were nice people, but all of them were loved. People would say, “Man, I loved working for that guy” or “I loved her.” It’s not because they’re nice. It’s because they give you an opportunity. They invite you into this growth space and bring out your best, and we love the people who bring out our best.

What about the diminishers? Do they tend to be too nice?

You know, sometimes during a presentation, I’ll ask, “Who here had a really nice diminisher?” Easily half of the hands go up. A lot of really nice people don’t make good leaders because they don’t ask people to do hard things, and they don’t hold them accountable. I don’t think being nice correlates with good leadership.

In terms of holding people accountable, I can understand there’s a problem with a leader who comes to you and says, “My team is full of dummies. I can’t trust them.” But there’s a good chance a leader will have one weak link in his or her chain. How does a multiplier deal with that and still manage to keep things going?

If you’re operating as a multiplier, there is no guarantee that you aren’t going to have a performance problem. In that case, you need to remove them and get them into an environment where they can excel. What we found in our research is the people that multipliers remove first from a team aren’t necessarily the ones with performance problems. Multipliers remove the blockers first. So let’s say we have a team of 10 people, and there’s someone on the team who’s a bit of a prima donna—multipliers are really fast to take them out because they’re suppressing everyone else. Those people are far more damaging than someone who’s not carrying their weight.

Do multipliers have higher staff retention?

I often get that question, and the answer to that is no. In fact, I don’t have hard data on this, but from what I’ve observed, they tend to have lower retention rates. That’s because when someone’s working for a diminisher, they often have this strange, misguided, almost Mafia-like loyalty. You get working for one of these leaders, and you are just riding on their coattails; they don’t expect much of you, but they’ll take you along with them. And so people get trapped under diminishers all the time because they’re part of their Mafia. They stay there for a long time, and pretty soon they’re not really fit to work anywhere else because they haven’t had to think—they haven’t been held accountable. Whereas, multipliers tend to release their talent back into the system because they have this quality that’s like a magnet for talent. It’s like you might say, “Hey, Liz, you know you’ve grown working for me. I think you’re ready for the next stage.” And you would readily let me go, if not kick me out of the nest a little bit, because you know that behind me are six other people who want to go to work for you.

What role do multiplier leaders play in making final decisions? Are they less likely to build consensus?

We looked at the way multipliers make decisions, and we did not see any correlation between, how would I express this, the level of authority. We saw a great distinction with the process. We found that multiplier leaders tend to play the role of debate maker, but that doesn’t mean they’ve surrendered decision-making rights. Typically, they’re the ones saying, “Hey, I want everyone here to weigh in—give me the best you’ve got, make your arguments, fight it out—and in the end I’ll make the decision.” So we did find that they’re consensus-based decision makers. Sometimes they delegate, but in the end they tend to be the final decision maker.

Having seen you speak to a room of 300 people about this topic, I wonder: What do you hope is the first thing the people in the audience do when they get back to their desks? What’s the first practical step they should take?

I hope they ask more questions, and I hope one of those questions is, “How might I be shutting people down with the best of intentions?” I remember there was a tech executive who had been through one of our workshops, and he said he went back to his hotel room to answer emails. He started to respond to someone on an issue, and before he finished typing, he thought, OK, let me redo that. So he deleted it all and just asked a couple of questions instead. Rather than get in that normal mode of react, respond, tell, he stopped and realized that the person who put the issue in front of him probably had the answer. By putting the ownership and accountability back on that person, it opens up a whole new path of leadership.

That must be tricky for people who have been trained to be “members of the Mafia,” as you put it earlier.

For some leaders, the reality is it’s too late. I don’t want to be fatalistic. I’ve coached a number of people who had a pretty big change to make, and I find that the limiting factor is not the leader’s ability to change himself or herself, but the organization’s willingness to see that person in a different light. Case in point: Steve Jobs. The world was offered a portrait of Steve, and they accepted it. It’s such a strong portrait that we actually say, “Oh, well, that’s reality,” and often when a leader changes, people still see that old version. Sometimes it takes a leader changing organizations, changing environments and getting a fresh start for people to really see them as a different kind of leader.