Success Conceals Wickedness

Biographies of Steve Jobs (by Walter Isaacson,) Jeff Bezos (by Brad Stone,) and Elon Musk (by Ashlee Vance)

Two common themes in the biographies of Steve Jobs (by Walter Isaacson,) Jeff Bezos (by Brad Stone,) and Elon Musk (by Ashley Vance) are these entrepreneurs’ extreme personalities and the costs of their extraordinary successes.

The world mostly regards Musk, Jobs, and Bezos as passionate, inspiring, visionary, and charismatic leaders who’ve transformed their industries. Yet their biographies paint a vivid picture of how ill-mannered these innovators are (or were, in the case of Jobs). They exercise ruthless control over every aspect of their companies’ products but have little tolerance for underperformers. They are extremely demanding of employees and unnecessarily demeaning to people who help them succeed.

  • Steve Jobs was renowned for his cranky, rude, spiteful, and controlling outlook. Biographer Isaacson recalls, “Nasty was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him.” Jobs famously drove his Mercedes around without a license and frequently parked in handicapped spots. For years, he denied paternity of his first daughter Lisa and forced her and her mother to live on welfare. He often threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way and publicly humiliated employees.
  • In a 2010 commencement address at Princeton, Jeff Bezos recalled his grandfather counseling, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.” Still, according to Brad Stone’s biography, Bezos often imparts insulting rebukes and criticisms to employees: “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?” “Are you lazy or just incompetent?” “Why are you wasting my life?” and “Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”
  • According to Ashlee Vance’s biography, when an executive assistant asked for a raise, Elon Musk asked her to take a two-week vacation while he contemplated her request. When the assistant returned from vacation, Musk fired her.

“Success covers a multitude of blunders”

The great Irish playwright Oscar Wilde once remarked, “No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.”

The other great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Success covers a multitude of blunders.”

British politician and historian Lord John Dalberg-Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which … the end learns to justify the means.”

Ethics Violations by NBC News Anchor Brian Williams

Ethics Violations by NBC News Anchor Brian Williams In 2015, NBC suspended prominent news anchor Brian Williams after internal investigations revealed no less than 11 instances where he either embellished facts or bent the truth. Members of his team and NBC staffers who knew about these ethics violations chose to overlook because he was powerful. According to The New York Times,

Mr. Williams has been drawing 9.3 million viewers a night, and his position seemed unassailable. Even as the stature of the nightly newscast faded in the face of real-time digital news, Mr. Williams was one of the most trusted names in America … He was powerful. Williams had the ear of NBC boss Steve Burke. He was a ratings powerhouse. And he spent years overseeing TV’s most watched newscast. He was a winner, for himself, those around him and those above him—until it became clear the man who is supposed be among the most trusted in America had issues with telling the truth.

Power Corrupts the Mind

Brilliant men and women engage in morally wrong conduct simply because they can. They can get away with extreme pride, temper, abuse, and other disruptive behaviors because their spectacular success can and does cover many of their sins, even in the eyes of those at the receiving end of their crudeness.

Our high-achieving culture adores the successful, the powerful, and the rich. And part of this adoration is the exemption we grant these celebrities from the ordinary rules of professional civility.

Idea for Impact: The more people possess power and the more successful they get, the more they focus on their own egocentric perspectives and ignore others’ interests.

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