It is human to anthropomorphize. We like to personify holidays into heroic figures like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny and personify companies as Ronald McDonald or the Michelin Man. The flourishing of art and culture of entire eras is personified as Elizabethan or Victorian even though these people had little to do with creating the art and culture that is named after them. Polytheistic religions anthropomorphized forces of nature and even human activities like war (Mars & Thor) or love (Venus & Freyja). Today, the cult of the entrepreneur is guilty of anthropomorphizing the success of large teams onto a single leader.
As societies get increasingly complex, businesses and other organizations get larger which makes their leaders more powerful, but at the same time this trend should decrease the importance of any single individual in a successful organization according to research about group intelligence:
groups, as entities, have characteristics that are more than just a summing up or averaging of those of its members.
“Intuitively, we still attribute too much to individuals and not enough to groups. Part of that may just be that it’s simpler; it’s simpler to say the success of a company depended on the CEO for good or bad, but in reality the success of a company depends on a whole lot more,” said Thomas W. Malone, director of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence and senior author of the recent study, published in the journal Science. “Essentially what’s happening as our society becomes more advanced and more developed is that more things are done by groups of people than by individuals.
According to the researchers, one of the most important leadership skills is listening and getting out of the way of teammates so that they can all achieve their maximum contribution:
…groups with overbearing leaders who were reluctant to cede the floor and let the others talk did worse than those in which participation was better distributed and people took turns speaking.
Bill Gates owes more to the hundreds of thousands of current and former Microsoft employees for his wealth than the median Microsoft employees owes to him for theirs. Without Bill Gates, most Microsoft employees would have a similar amount of economic wealth to what they have now whereas without the huge Microsoft team, Bill Gates would have only a minuscule fraction of his wealth.
Bill Gates was certainly a successful leader who was able to listen to numerous voices on the Microsoft team and get out of their way so that they could work successfully, but he was also spectacularly successful at skimming off a larger than usual share of the profits compared to entrepreneurs like Steve Jobs who was a more successful entrepreneur by just about every other measure. On the other hand, Bill Gates is a much more successful philanthropist than Steve Jobs was, so perhaps the ends will justify the means.