Following in the Footsteps of Assholes

I’ve been wondering lately if one of our biggest hurdles for improvement are the heroes of American industry. When people become successful, we want to know how they did it, and then we copy.

Here are four men I think most of the world admires and a summary of their management style.

13678_bill_gates_surprised-pngBill Gates— Founder of Microsoft. Wealthiest man in the world. Enough said. Well known for his dictatorial style. The articles I’ve read about him describe him as sarcastic, aggressive, and having a fixation on winning no matter what. He was known to bring his staff to tears. Many would say this is what made Microsoft. Do the ends justify the means and should we emulate his management style to become successful ourselves?

thp83ralslSteve Jobs –No one can deny his vision. He had an uncanny ability to predict the future. At the same time, he was described as arrogant, controlling, and mean-spirited. People who didn’t impress him were called “bozos.” Mark Graban, who I greatly admire, also questioned Steve Job’s leadership style. I work with a lot of tech heads and to them, Jobs is like a god. Should we emulate him?

muskElon Musk– It seems this guy is always in the headlines. He possesses tremendous self confidence and is absolutely unrelenting in pursuit of his vision. One employee said she would follow “him into the gates of hell carrying suntan oil.” At the same time, Musk is infamous for breaking an employee. One of his staff said Musk is “best compared to a master who berates and smacks his dog for not being able to read his mind.” The articles I read suggest he bleeds some really good employees who just can’t keep up with him. Of course, there are some who say this is what makes working with Musk so great. They say he brings out the best in them. Is Musk doing something right and should we look to him as a model?

jeff-bezosJeff Benzos– He’s know for his straight talk: “Are you lazy or just incompetent?” We hear of his infamous e-mails with the subject line “?” and how it elicits waves of panic and instant action. It seems instilling fear gets him the results he wants. At the same time, Benzos is on another level in the intelligence department. A former vice president, said that Bezos’ criticisms tend to be right – even when he has no real knowledge of the field. Should all our leaders be like Benzos?

When you look at it collectively, there seems a strong argument that these management styles are the way to go in order to achieve success. The proof is in the pudding, right?

I’ve worked with some brilliant, super-driven people (though perhaps not at the level of the above four). Management put the company in, what they believed, was their capable hands.

Is this the recipe for success?

Here are my observations from working with these managers:

  • No one could keep up with them. They could outsmart and outwork anyone under the table.
  • They always believed they were right. Always.
  • These managers were resentful that everyone wasn’t as smart or as committed as they were and as a result were abrasive to work with. They were often insulting or degrading and had little tolerance for people who couldn’t do the same thing they could.
  • Their personalities created high turn over. People got physically sick and were often demoralized. People quit or asked to be put on another team. This only annoyed these managers even more. Why couldn’t they get good people or why couldn’t people just “get over themselves and just work?” They just couldn’t deal with people and their weaknesses.
  • The product? It suffered. The customer? They suffered. We were always behind schedule and quality was poor. The managers blamed the team members. Some people on the team just stopped caring—i.e. ‘Just tell me what you want and give me my paycheck.’
  • There was so much turnover that new people had to constantly be trained. It put more pressure on these brilliant people to produce and as a result they became more combative and resentful. They were often in charge of training and were irritated when people couldn’t remember everything they had taught them (the method was insert funnel/pour in knowledge approach)
  • I tried to reason with them, trying to get them to understand that they were dealing with mere “mortals.” They didn’t care. To them, the people just had to get better. They didn’t seem to have a strategy on how to accomplish this, though.
  • The Darwinism of the project seemed to be fine with them. If people left—good, they didn’t need to be there anyway. At the same time they were irritated they couldn’t get good people.
BUD/S Hellweek Surf Drills

Should we have a much more rigid selection process in recruiting our employees? The special forces do it.

Before I left one of these teams, I spoke with one of these managers about the regular turnover (I was about to leave as well). She blamed it on the hiring processes. “This is a tough product and you have to get people who can deal with it.” I suggested the people they hired needed to have the tough-mindness of a special forces operator. She agreed with me. Perhaps we were on to something. A rigid selection process such as what they use in the special forces ensures only a certain type of person becomes one. Perhaps we should copy? At the same time, though, these projects in themselves weren’t really that difficult. It had become difficult based upon the decisions in leadership. Besides, it seems everyone thinks their company or project is special and requires special people. Not every company in the world can expect to get special-forces quality people.

Jobs or a Gates or a Musk or a Benzos probably represent .001% of our population. The majority of us are simply unable to do what they can. I know many would fault me for saying this, after all we live in a country where we are all taught and expected to be exceptional. Here’s the fact– most people are just average. I know we all think of ourselves and the people we hire as above average, but if everyone is above average, then no one is.

All this reminds me of how Deming pointed out how managers seem to be able to manage just about anything except people. I think this definitely applies here. We simply must learn to better manage and lead ordinary, fallible, and imperfect people and get the best out of them. What if these brilliant men were able to do that? How much more successful would they be? Many would argue they ARE getting the best out of these ordinary people. And they are doing it with their type of style of leadership. After all, the proof is in the pudding.

Are they right?

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