I’ve already written about how many CEOs and senior leaders are essentially sociopaths, how two-faced they can be, how the PR vehicle of “the CEO pledge” probably means very little, and heck, even once about how it sometimes feels like you need to be an asshole to be a good leader. I personally do not think that, but I think the narrative gets pretty twisted out in the crazy world we all inhabit daily.
Today is my birthday, so I’m not going to spend a long time making this argument. Instead, I will point you to this article from Stanford Business School, and specifically this pull quote:
But ignoring the harm that narcissistic leaders can cause is perilous, argues Charles A. O’Reilly III, the Frank E. Buck Professor of Management at Stanford Graduate School of Business. “We see the 10% of narcissists that succeeded and call them visionaries,” he says. “We’re not looking at the 90% who flamed out and caused irreparable damage. By talking about narcissism as though it might be positive, we’re not paying attention to how dangerous these people can be.”
Absolutely. “Me” vs. “We.” (Which is the title of this guy’s paper.)
My life in 2014
I had just pulled into Texas for my second stint (I lived in Houston 2003–2004). I was still with my ex and, despite having gone to graduate school for some reason to study organizational development, I got a marketing job with a luxury travel consortium. I regularly spend the entire day in gym shorts and have some sweatshirts over 15 years old, so I am not a “luxury” person. I fit in for a bit, then I didn’t, then I got canned.
Within the first couple of weeks at this place, though, you could tell what the ecosystem was. The top dog was a complete narcissist. He had seven SVPs under him, collectively known as “The S-Team,” and pretty much 70 percent of the organizational activities at this place were in some way, shape, or form in service of this dude’s ego. We’d spend weeks on a project because he mentioned it casually once at a dinner or something. It was chaos internally, although admittedly they had a pretty good turnover rate, so I guess some people dug it. I think it was because you could get comp’ed for fancy trips. I once went to Belgium, for example. So, I can’t totally knock it, ya know?
My job role at this place was a disgrace, which is why I write about job role a lot. I was on one team in Texas and should have been on this other team in Seattle, and by and large no one really cared what I did. Most Fridays when my boss was in Dubai or something, which happened more than you would think, I’d leave at like 1pm, go eat lunch, and never come back. I never got an e-mail because no one really cared. Ha. This was my life at 33–34.
Anyway, though, this place laid people off all the time. Piped ’em out. Whether it was insubordination or revenue or whatever, it wasn’t necessarily a stable environment, except for the top rungs.
So see, this is that pull quote above. Steve Jobs is a narcissist and I think we all know that by now, right? But … he created an amazing product, and most companies now are set up to worship product. So he’s a god in that respect. But … the flip side is, he’s in the 1 percent of assholes where the output and the “shipped product” makes up for everything else, because the money is straight rolling the fuck in. Scrooge McDuck swimming style.
The bigger reality for most people, though, is what I just described: you work under a narcissist and there’s really no great product or great return and everything is dumb and you still might get the pipe at any second. That’s the 90 percent, or even the 95 percent, of working under these guys.
Why do these guys persist?
Basically because work is a game. It’s something to be “won.” Most people look at work as a transaction. I come in, I do stuff, maybe I have some friends, maybe it’s purposeful in parts, and I get paid. Most people would stop coming to work if they stopped getting paid. Sorry, but that’s just reality.
To top guys, it’s very different. It’s a game to be won, and the less agreeable/nice you are, the more you can win. This inherently is going to foster a culture of narcissism at the top.
Plus, big execs are like sports stars. Everyone is always kissing their ass and wanting to serve them, and they have “handlers” and “lieutenants” and “gatekeepers” and all that. There’s a whole team propping up most CEOs. When you constantly get told your shit smells like roses, you come to believe it. This also fosters narcissism.
Can we do anything?
Not really. Most of these guys will stay this way, for sure.
We can stop deifying guys like Jobs and Ellison, though. Yes, they built companies, scaled them very well, and had solid legacy products behind them. They sit on mountains of cash personally and organizationally. That is certainly a noble professional accomplishment, but I for one would argue that being a complete asshole to those around you is kind of a bigger deal than making billions of dollars. In my mind, making billions is a mix of intelligence, timing, and luck. Being a nice person to others is the core of the human condition. One sounds cooler, and damn I wouldn’t mind a yacht, but one is actually cooler, and it’s not the one these guys prioritize.
I’d just like to step back from this narrative, because I think there are a lot of needle-dick middle manager guys all over the economy who think it means “I must be a hard-charging prick to be effective in my role!” And we wonder why engagement scores haven’t budged in 15 years, right?
You can be a good person and still scale a business. Thousands have done it. Maybe we should write more stories about them.