Who is the Leader in Peanuts?

Photo: Pixabay/ Mariamichelle

When you think of the Peanuts’ gang, who is the leader? If your initial answer is Charlie Brown, I respectfully disagree. Charlie may be at the center of almost all the stories, but he is constantly stepped on, disrespected, and ignored. He lacks confidence and cannot even muster a simple “hello” to the red-haired girl he’s been infatuated with since 1961.

Others may suggest that the leader of Charles Schulz’s classic comic strip is Snoopy (a loner living in a dreamworld as World War I Flying Ace), Linus (who cannot influence anyone to abandon trick-or-treating to stare at a pumpkin patch), or Peppermint Patty (who’s intellectual laziness results in self-satisfaction with the school certificate placing her in the “D-Minus Hall of Fame”). Instead of focusing on the “nicer” characters, I propose that the true leader of Peanuts is Lucy.

Lucy comes from that part of me that’s capable of saying mean and sarcastic things, which is not a good trait to have, so Lucy gives me a good outlet.” — Charles M. Schulz

If your initial thoughts are that Lucy is bossy, overconfident, and semi-obnoxious, then we’re on the same page. According to multiple studies, these behaviors not only make a person appear more powerful, but can actually make them more powerful, as well. Research has found that when someone acts as if they are the most capable person in the room, they significantly increase their chances of ending up in charge.

Basically, agreeableness is seen as a weakness. Just look at Charlie Brown. On a regular basis Lucy repeats her infamous stunt where she pulls the football away from him just as he is about to kick it. Charlie is always convinced he can do it and is disappointed every time. Based on this an many other Peanuts stories, Adam Grant, Wharton professor and best-selling author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, would classify Charlie as a “giver” and Lucy as a “taker.” Givers can be effective leaders but they run the risk of being exploited by takers.

We believe we want [leaders] who are modest, authentic, and all the things we rate positively, but we find it’s all the things we rate negatively [like arrogance and egotism] that are the best predictors of higher salaries or getting chosen for a leadership position. — Jeffrey Pfeffer, a business professor at Stanford

If you follow this line of reasoning, such overt displays of obnoxious behavior can be seen as confidence. Those who exhibit their craving for power are more disinhibited and are often the individuals who have the guts to say what others are thinking. By saying it first, they establish their dominance amongst peers and upper management.

This same unconstrained approach is what one study calls “useful narcissism.” Narcissistic CEOs, the study found, tend to be gamblers. They are more likely to make high-profile decisions. Some decisions work out, others don’t, but “to the extent that innovation and risk taking are in short supply in the corporate world, narcissists are the ones who are going to step up to the plate.”

What I’ve become convinced of is that nice guys and gals really do finish last. — Adam Grant, Wharton professor and best-selling author

Am I suggesting you start acting like a narcissistic? Let’s just say that I’m not telling you to avoid it IF, and only if, you can contain it to the following circumstances that Jerry Useem outlined in a recent paper:

  1. If your job involves a series of onetime encounters in which reputational backlash has minimal effect.
  2. After a group has formed but its hierarchy has not.
  3. When “the group’s survival is in question, speed is essential, and a paralyzing existential doubt is in the air.”

If being a jerk still sounds like your path towards the upper echelon of management, be warned that it will fail if there are no benefits to the team. In a study by social psychologist Gerben van Kleef, an individual was observed stealing coffee from someone’s desk. If that coffee was just for him, his influence among others shrunk. If, however, he stole the coffee for himself and a co-worker, his influence spiked.

A football moving, puppy punching, insult riddling, Lucy-esque leader may wield more power than a politer version of yourself for the short-term, but a reputation based on conceit is a weak foundation. One slip-up and you will have a company full of people ready to cheer for your demise. Instead, know your audience. Be aware of situations where bravado is appropriate and can be useful. And reserve the norm-violating version of yourself for special occasion.

David Kahn, PhD is an Organizational Psychologist focused on delivering business solutions that link culture and engagement with the business goals of the organization. Check out his latest book, "Case, Spandex, Briefcase: Leadership Lessons from Superheroes" and read more of his work on leadersayswhat.com.