Most people would like to be described as “straight shooters.” (I think). And many straight shooters are very successful. However, it seems like they also face a glass ceiling. Whether we’re talking politics, business, or non-profits, we rarely see straight shooters at the very top of large organizations.

Generalizing from the Larry Summers experience, here’s my best guess about what’s going on:

At lower levels, straight shooters profit extensively from their solid reputations. Superiors want to give you responsibility, because they know they can count on you, and don’t have to worry you’ll stab them in the back. The higher you rise, though, the more you have to worry about the feelings of your subordinates and peers, not just the approval of your superiors. Indeed, at the very top, you have no superiors, and your whole job is keeping subordinates and peers happy.

Underlying this story is the assumption that “straight shooting” combines promise-keeping with bluntness. Are successful leaders the few who can unbundle the two?