No Boss Likes a Surprise—Good or Bad

Never surprise the boss, particularly on potentially volatile issues that could affect your project’s timeline, budget, or performance.

Even good surprises can backfire. Many an example exists of employees bringing the boss what they believe were good news, only to realize later that that the surprises weren’t so good after all.

Consider the following example of a Boeing test pilot pulling off a shocking stunt on a prototype aircraft, much to the exasperation of his company’s leadership.

A Reckless Stunt That Created a Buzz

Boeing 707 Dash 80 prototype The Boeing 707 was America’s first passenger jet aircraft. Prior to the 707, which entered service in 1958, air travel was mostly limited to the affluent—and even they were hesitant about air travel’s safety. The 707’s in-service safety record and its economic characteristics quickly made travel more accessible and dependable. The 707 ushered in the Jet Age.

But for Boeing, today’s leading aircraft manufacturer, developing the 707 was a big gamble. The 707 had no orders, and Boeing embarked on its development entirely on the wager of its prospective commercial success. When the aircraft’s design commenced in 1951, Boeing’s estimated development costs were $16 million. That was roughly 20% of the company’s value, and more than twice its yearly profits—nearly all of which originated from military contracts.

The Demonstration That Was Far from What the Boss Had Authorized

Boeing built its first and only 707 prototype aircraft in 1955. The company’s leadership decided to show off the aircraft at Seattle’s Seafare Hydroplane races on August 7, 1955.

The display plan was to have Boeing’s Chief Test Pilot, Alvin “Tex” Johnston, do one low pass over the racecourse so that the airline executives, industry pundits, and government officials who attended the high-profile event could witness Boeing’s new undertaking.

Johnston had other plans. In his mind, the audience needed to be sold on the plane’s performance and safety. Seized by the impulse to flaunt the agility of the 707, Johnston had a little more in mind than just an unpretentious flyby.

During the in-air demonstration (see YouTube video,) with the aircraft soaring over Seattle’s Lake Washington, Johnston suddenly pulled back on the controls, and the plane started to climb at a speed of 400 miles per hour. Then, he did a complete 360-degree roll and flew the plane upside down for a moment. As the crowd watched in shock and amazement, Johnston did a second barrel role.

Overconfident Employee, Furious Boss

Alvin Melvin (Tex) Johnston, Boeing Test Pilot In the startled crowd was Boeing’s legendary president William “Bill” Allen. Allen, who had authorized no more than a simple flyby, thought that Johnston’s first barrel role was a mistake. When Allen witnessed the second barrel roll, he feared that either Johnston had lost his mind, or the aircraft was in grave trouble.

According to Robert J. Sterling’s Legend & Legacy: The Story of Boeing and Its People (1991,) Allen summoned Johnston into his office the next day. Allen demanded an explanation and inquired why Johnston had foolishly risked the company’s only prototype.

Pleased with his successful accomplishment, Johnston offered a simple explanation, “I was selling airplanes.” Johnston explained that he had previously tested barrel rolls on the prototype, and it was a safe maneuver. He hadn’t risked the aircraft at all.

Allen reproached Johnston and told him that he appreciated the efforts, but Johnston was never to do anything that had not been approved previously.

Never Let Your Boss Be Surprised by Bad News

If there is only one thing worse than delivering bad news, it’s not delivering bad news as soon as you know that some trouble is brewing.

No boss wants to hear about any looming issue from some third party—especially if it could be worrying—and put her on the spot with her peers and superiors.

When you fail to report any bad news, you are leaving your boss exposed to being blindsided with a potential problem, and the perception that your boss doesn’t have control of her organization.

Idea for Impact: A Good Employee is Predictably Excellent

The surest way to delight your boss is by setting the right expectations, discussing and coordinating on a plan of action, and delivering on her expectations of your performance.

When the status of important any project changes, make it a priority to bring your boss and other affected constituents up to date. If, right from the beginning, you’ve made the true picture clear, your boss may be less surprised with the bad and the good.

Never surprise your boss—just keep her clued-in on a regular basis.

Power Corrupts, and Power Attracts the Corruptible

Picture of Statue of Demon Mahishasura atop Chamundi Hills in Mysore, India The recent sexual misconduct allegations of influential men abusing their towering positions for contemptuous behaviors provide yet another reminder that power corrupts. As the British politician and historian Lord John Dalberg-Acton famously wrote in an 1887 letter to the Anglican Bishop Mandell Creighton,

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.

The recent scandals lay bare the three distinctive characteristics of the intoxication of power: the inflation of the self, the devaluation of the helpless, and a dreadful shortfall in self-awareness of actions and consequences.

In the case of studio executive Harvey Weinstein, the worse outrage is that, many prominent people, despite their awareness of Weinstein’s uninhibited abuse, stayed silent—and possibly benefited. Some Hollywood celebrities are said to have overlooked his transgressions. Meryl Streep, one of Hollywood’s most successful actors, who once referred to Weinstein as ‘God,’ had to contend the blame that everyone in Hollywood knew of Weinstein’s conduct. His staff sheltered him or paid off victims, many of whom chose to remain silent for fear of derailing their budding careers. Going public would have hurt them more than it would have damaged Weinstein, until those accusations reach a critical mass and suddenly everyone flipped against him.

The Intoxication of Power

The British philosopher Bertrand Russell first wrote about the “intoxication of power” in A History of Western Philosophy (1945,) and best described what develops in the minds of many people who, in all walks of life, exercise a measure of power and dominance.

The Greeks, with their dread of hubris and their belief in a Necessity or Fate superior even to Zeus, carefully avoided what would have seemed to them insolence towards the universe. The Middle Ages carried submission much further: humility towards God was a Christian’s first duty. Initiative was cramped by this attitude, and great originality was scarcely possible. The Renaissance restored human pride, but carried it to the point where it led to anarchy and disaster. … Man, formerly too humble, begins to think of himself as almost a God.

In all of this I feel a great danger, the danger of what might be called cosmic impiety. The concept of ‘truth’ as something dependent upon facts largely outside human control has been one of the ways in which philosophy hitherto has inculcated the necessary element of humility. When this check upon pride is removed, a further step is taken on the road towards a certain kind of madness — the intoxication of power which invaded philosophy with Fichte. I am persuaded that this intoxication is the greatest danger of our time, and that any philosophy which, however unintentionally, contributes to it is increasing the danger of vast social disaster.

Idea for Impact: People with even the smallest amount of authority can and will find ways to abuse it

People can become corrupt with power, fame, wealth, and influence, and, as I’ve written previously, they regularly get away with it. The solution, I believe, is to subject our elites (and the sycophantic supporters who are disposed to collude in self-interest) to as many restrictions, supervisions, and checks and balances as possible, and scrutinize them closely so as to spot hubristic traits and symptoms of the abuse of power.

Seven Easy Ways to Motivate Employees and Increase Productivity

If you’re a manager, you can become a motivator by inspiring your employees to high performance—and produce beyond the ordinary.

  1. Seven Easy Ways to Motivate Employees and Increase Productivity Purpose. Even the mundane can become meaningful in a larger context. Howard Schultz, the founder and CEO of Starbucks once said about providing propose, “People want to be part of something larger than themselves. They want to be part of something they’re really proud of, that they’ll fight for, sacrifice for, that they trust.” Sometimes that’s all people need to get their skates on—because nothing is worse than feeling that they’re are stuck doing a meaningless task.
  2. Autonomy. Empower people to innovate and make decisions. Be clear about performance expectations. Reduce your direct supervision of their work. Don’t micromanage.
  3. Appreciation. Reward your employees’ small as well as big successes. Recognition is easy and need not be expensive and time-consuming.
  4. Involvement. Interact directly with frontline employees, observe their work, solicit their opinions, seek ideas for improvement, and work directly with the frontline to identify and resolve problems. Encourage employees to talk about the “undiscussable,” even if others don’t want to hear it.
  5. Challenge. Put people in situations where they can grow, learn new skills, and gain new knowledge.
  6. Urgency. Disregard command-and-control and, instead, become an expediter and facilitate your employees getting their job done. The pioneering management guru Peter Drucker encouraged managers to frequently ask of employees the one question that can initiate more improvement than any other: “What do I do that wastes your time without contributing to your effectiveness?”
  7. Empathy. Care about your employees’ success and give them hope about their performance. Be sincere. Demonstrate you value differing opinions.

Idea for Impact: The bottom line on motivation is this: People know what motivates them. Ask them. You may not have any idea what they want.

A Sense of Urgency

The most successful managers I know are highly attentive of their colleagues’ sense of urgency and incessantly adapt to them.

In his excellent Steve Jobs biography, Walter Isaacson evokes Apple CEO (and operations wizard) Tim Cook‘s responsiveness and a sense of urgency:

At a meeting early in his tenure, Cook was told of a problem with one of Apple’s Chinese suppliers. “This is really bad,” he said. “Someone should be in China driving this.” Thirty minutes later he looked at an operations executive sitting at the table and unemotionally asked, “Why are you still here?” The executive stood up, drove directly to the San Francisco airport, and bought a ticket to China. He became one of Cook’s top deputies.

Idea for Impact: Bosses and customers often respond more positively to your focus on creating a sense of urgency before emerging problems erupt in a crisis.

How to Prevent a Communications Breakdown During Crisis

How to Prevent a Communications Breakdown During Crisis

The ultimate test of a leader’s and an organization’s communication skills is how they deal with a crisis—natural disasters, crisis of confidence, acts of malevolence, strategic errors, acts of deception, management misconduct, and so forth.

It’s not difficult to see why communication is an important element of crisis management: leaders today have to tackle media that is unsympathetic to what it regards as management incompetence, shareholders and customers who are ever more demanding, legislation and regulation that is getting stricter, and competitors eager to pinch customers during times of distress.

Effective crisis communications must be able to have a consistent and clear message and present this message swiftly and regularly following a crisis.

Here are seven elements of effective crisis communication.

  1. Strategic Thinking: Think purposefully about what you want your constituencies (employees, stockholders, customers, suppliers, communities, the media) to know under the given circumstances. Many a routine problem has transformed into a crisis because too many people were told too much and the situation became exaggerated and out of control.
    • What happened
    • Who is responsible
    • Why did it happen
    • Who is affected
    • What should be done
    • Whom can we trust
    • What should we say
    • Who should say it
    • How should we say it
  2. Openness: When a crisis befalls, be prepared to talk about it internally and externally as assertively as you respond to the crisis operationally. Understand the expectations of your constituencies and go beyond what is expected or required. If you are not communicative enough, people may make erroneous assumptions about the crisis. Bad news can travel fast and sell best.
  3. Candor: If your constituencies should know about a crisis that your organization is experiencing, talk about it as quickly and as completely as you can, especially to those most directly affected.
  4. Concern: Keep the people most directly affected by the crisis updated until the crisis is completely resolved. Do not brand a whistle blower a troublemaker.
  5. Sensitivity: At the earliest possible moment, step back and analyze the impact of the crisis. Inform and alert all the constituencies that are affected. Demonstrate concern, compassion, sympathy, remorse, or contrition, whatever the case may require.
  6. Integrity: If you are responsible for the crisis or perceived as such, acknowledge the situation promptly. Be true to your corporate and personal conscience. Share the crisis action plan and seek inputs.
  7. Honesty: Learn from your mistakes and talk openly about what you’ve learned. Demonstrate your commitment to keeping errors and problems from resurfacing.

Idea for Impact: Reputation and goodwill represent a great part of business value. Protect yourself when faced with attacks on your reputation and competence. If you do not communicate effectively and frequently with your constituents, somebody else will. In the absence of information, your constituents can develop their own perceptions of the problem and its implications.

An Old Joke about Accounting and Leadership

A man in a hot air balloon gets lost over Nebraska. He has no idea where he is or where he is going. He does not see anybody… nothing but farmland as far as the eye can see.

Eventually, he sees a woman down in a field. He goes down and cries out to her, “Where am I? I’m already an hour late for an appointment!”

She hollers back, “You’re at 42 degrees 15 minutes and 4 seconds North latitude and 98 degrees 12 minutes 15 seconds West longitude.”

The man yells out, “You must be an accountant.”

“Hmm … how did you guess?”

“Your information is absolutely precise and accurate … but totally useless.”

“You must be an executive.”

“Yes … but how do you know?”

“You’re higher up, you do not know where you are, you do not know where you’re going, you’re over-scheduled, and you blame your subordinates—someone below you.”

Reference: A Year with Peter Drucker by Joseph A. Maciariello

One of the Tests of Leadership is the Ability to Sniff out a Fire Quickly

One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster

I’ve previously stressed the importance of problem-finding as an intellectual skill. I’ve also highlighted why risk analysis and risk reduction should be one of the primary goals of any intellectual process. In this article, I’ll write about being proactive in identifying problems before they evolve into crises.

How Wells Fargo Failed to Recognize a Problem and Address it before it Became a Bigger Problem

As the Wells Fargo accounts scandal unfolded, it was clear that Wells Fargo’s leadership was well aware of the burgeoning problems early on, but failed to act decisively and nip the problem in the bud.

Given impossible sales quotas to reach, Wells Fargo’s “high pressure sales culture” opened as many as two million bank and credit card accounts on behalf of its customers without their consent. Employees were rebuked or even fired for not meeting aggressive cross-selling targets.

Human nature is such that high-pressure demands can deplete the willpower people need to act morally and resist temptations. And such demanding circumstances encourage people to go into defensive mode, engage in self-interested behaviors, and consider only short term benefits and dangers.

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal: “A Stitch in Time Indeed Saves Nine”

Leadership Lessons from the Wells Fargo Accounts Scandal Wells Fargo’s leadership reportedly had data about ethical breaches, but they ignored or misjudged the impact of the problem. Wells Fargo even held a two-day ethics workshop in 2014 unequivocally telling their employees not to do that. As per an internal review, managers knew that 1% of employees had been fired for “sales integrity” violations.

Wells Fargo’s leadership didn’t act quickly and decisively to mitigate the effects of the crisis. Warren Buffett, one of the Wells Fargo’s biggest investors, summarized this leadership inaction at the 2017 Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting:

There were three very significant mistakes, but there was one that was worse than all the others … The main problem was that they didn’t act when they learned about it … at some point if there’s a major problem, the CEO will get wind of it. And at that moment, that’s the key to everything, because the CEO has to act. It was a huge, huge, huge error if they were getting, and I’m sure they were getting, some communications and they ignored them or they just sent them back down to somebody down below.

Leadership: “Only the Paranoid Survive”

Andy Grove (1936–2016,) the illustrious cofounder and CEO of Intel, was a famous worrier. At Intel, the focal point of Grove’s leadership style was worry and skepticism. He believed that business success contains the seeds of its own destruction, and that in order for an organization to have longevity, it needs to continue to worry about the future.

'Only the Paranoid Survive' by Andrew S. Grove (ISBN 0385483821) Grove’s principle was immortalized in his famous proclamation, “Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.” He eloquently explained his worrisome mantra in his bestselling corporate memoir, Only the Paranoid Survive (1996.) He wrote in the preface:

The things I tend to be paranoid about vary. I worry about products getting screwed up, and I worry about products getting introduced prematurely. I worry about factories not performing well, and I worry about having too many factories. I worry about hiring the right people, and I worry about morale slacking off. And, of course, I worry about competitors. I worry about other people figuring out how to do what we do better or cheaper, and displacing us with our customers.

At Intel, worrying about the future created a culture of triumph that propelled change and innovation. Grove never let Intel rest on its laurels and led the company to break boundaries in microprocessor innovation. During his tenure as CEO from 1987—98, Intel’s stock price rose 32% a year. Grove also said, “A corporation is a living organism; it has to continue to shed its skin. Methods have to change. Focus has to change. Values have to change. The sum total of those changes is transformation.”

Idea for Impact: Learn to Sniff out a Fire Better than Anyone Does

The principal tasks of leadership are (1) identifying the biggest risks and opportunities, and (2) allocating organizational resources. Therefore, one of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes a disaster. If identified and addressed early, nearly any problem can be resolved in a way that is beneficial for everyone involved.

Many leaders tend to be reactionary—they claim, “why fix something that isn’t broken.” Even when they see an impending problem, they may assume that the problem “isn’t that big of a deal” and wish the problem will just go away. Alas, many problems never go away; they only get worse.

To become a good leader, be paranoid—always assume that “there’s no smoke without fire.” If, according to Murphy’s Law, everything that can go wrong will go wrong, the paranoid leader has an advantage.

Whenever you are doing anything, have your eyes on the possibility of potential problems and actively mitigate those risks. Never allow a problem to reach gigantic proportions because you can and must recognize and fix it in its early stages.

As the medieval French philosopher and logician Peter Abelard (1079–1142) wrote, “The beginning of wisdom is found in doubting; by doubting we come to the question, and by seeking we may come upon the truth.”

Bad Customers Are Bad for Your Business

Herb Kelleher: “Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you.”

Herb Kelleher of Southwest AirlinesSouthwest Airlines is a paragon of superlative customer service. Southwest’s happy and engaged employees routinely go out of their way to delight their customers. In spite of such remarkable devotion to customer satisfaction, there have been times when Southwest had to decide that some customers were just wrong for their business.

In the very entertaining and enlightening Nuts!: Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, authors Kevin and Jackie Freiberg narrate how Southwest had to let go of a customer who couldn’t be less satisfied with her travel experience. This customer relations-story is best appreciated in light of the fun-loving and gregarious nature of Southwest’s legendary founder and ex-Chairman/CEO Herb Kelleher.

'Nuts- Southwest Airlines' by Kevin and Jackie Freiberg (ISBN 0767901843) A woman who frequently flew on Southwest, was constantly disappointed with every aspect of the company’s operation. In fact, she became known as the “Pen Pal” because after every flight she wrote in with a complaint.

She didn’t like the fact that the company didn’t assign seats; she didn’t like the absence of a first-class section; she didn’t like not having a meal in flight; she didn’t like Southwest’s boarding procedure; she didn’t like the flight attendants’ sporty uniforms and the casual atmosphere.

Her last letter, reciting a litany of complaints, momentarily stumped Southwest’s customer relations people. They bumped it up to Herb’s desk, with a note: ‘This one’s yours.’

In sixty seconds, Kelleher wrote back and said, ‘Dear Mrs. Crabapple, We will miss you. Love, Herb.’

Bad Customers: Wrong for Your Business, Wrong for Your Employees

Bad Customers: Wrong for Your Business, Wrong for Your Employees

Customers are the lifeblood of any business. Customer satisfaction begets loyalty, and loyalty begets revenues and profits. Businesses can therefore never place too much emphasis on their customers.

However, with slogans like “the customer is always right,” many businesses fall into the trap—and the slippery slope—of trying to satisfy every customer’s every wish.

Although your business may need all its customers—even the irksome ones—the reality is that some customers can actually be bad for your business. You can’t sustainably run a business without trying to satisfy every customer—particularly those cranky, annoying, or unreasonable ones.

Be wary of customers that fall into these categories:

  • Customers who require high maintenance but cannot be charged more
  • Customers whose demand for price destroys your profitability
  • Customers who want a lot more (better product, better service, better schedule) but are tightfisted
  • Customers who require supplementary services or products (especially those that are not part of your business’s core competencies) and tailored solutions that you don’t provide and can’t profitably offer to the rest of your customer base
  • Customers who don’t subscribe into the future vision of your business or your industry, which they’ll need to strategically commit to as some point in the future
  • Customers who tend to be aggressive and hostile, and disrespectful to your employees, regardless of how well they serve the customers

Strategic Customer Management Involves Being Tough Minded with Some Customers

Strategic Customer ManagementConsidering your long-term business goals, sifting through who should and who shouldn’t be your customers is an important element of strategic leadership.

With every product or service you offer, focus on who you want your customer to be, what expectations they have of you, and what you can profitably provide to them. Once you have figured that out, customers who don’t fit well need to be managed judiciously and decisively.

Without strategic customer management, you run a risk of disrupting your ability to converge around the needs of your principal customer base.

Remember the notion of opportunity costevery ‘no’ is a ‘yes’ to something important.

Idea for Impact: Let Go of Some of Your Troublesome Customers

Sometimes, it may be better to lose certain customers by turning them down than to dilute your ability to serve other valuable customers profitably. Stop trying to delight every customer. Take a hard look at the past, current, and future of every customer and prioritize whom you can going to serve better and more successfully.

What it Takes to Be a Hit with Customers

  1. Be Trustworthy. One of the most important aspects of being effective at work is earning and upholding others’trust through your actions, not through your words. You earn trust slowly but can lose it in a moment—as Warren Buffett often reiterates, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” Idea for Impact: Earn trust by making and honoring your commitments. Do what you commit to. Act with integrity. Do the right things for the right reasons.
  2. Responsiveness in Customer Service: Respond immediately to requests unless there is a judicious reason to wait Be Responsive. We live in a time and age of “instantaneous gratification.” People want immediate results—without delay or deferment. They don’t expect to wait. And if they have to wait on you, their resentment grows. Alas, responsiveness affects how people perceive you. If you’re slow, your customers will suppose you are indifferent or incompetent. If you respond promptly, they’ll assume you’re proficient and on top of your work. Idea for Impact: Respond immediately to requests unless there is a judicious reason to wait.
  3. Be Strong, But Flexible. Respect the rules and traditions but be adaptable to changing conditions. Be watchful and absorb from whatever you can learn—as General Electric’s celebrated ex-CEO Jack Welch once wrote, “The desire and the ability of an organization to continuously learn from any source—and to rapidly convert this learning into action—is its ultimate competitive advantage.” Idea for Impact: Flexibility with rules can be pragmatic in its own right. Learn to make rational decisions by balancing facts and emotions.
  4. Be Realistic, Not Overly Optimistic. Self-help gurus and the media have endlessly touted optimism as the “winning formula to success.” This obsession with cheerfulness has reinforced a false sense of realism and pragmatism. Optimists tend to overlook the reality—they develop a false sense of hope and become too attached to the possibility of positive outcomes. Unfortunately, realists are branded as skeptics and skeptics are quickly shunned as outcasts. Idea for Impact: Take an honest and levelheaded view, no matter what the problem. Embrace the possibility of failure. Plan for the downside. Don’t get caught up in trivial details.
  5. Be Likeable and Interested. Highly competent but unlikeable people do not succeed as well as their fairly competent but likeable counterparts. The American poet and memoirist Maya Angelou aptly said, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Idea for Impact: Be pleasant, enthusiastic, and friendly—make eye contact, smile, and say ‘hello’ more. Listen. Be open and approachable. Appreciate the individuality of people. Try to be interested, not just interesting.
  6. Be a Good Salesperson - Much of success in life is really about selling yourself Be a Good Salesperson. Much of success in life—from getting a Starbucks barista to make a special no-whip, extra-foam latte with half a packet of Splenda to finding a spouse—is really about selling yourself. Every selling situation involves making a connection with an individual who likes and trusts you. An anonymous sales guru once said, “All things being equal, most people would rather buy from somebody they like… and that’s true even when all things aren’t equal.” Idea for Impact: It is useless to work hard and be creative unless you can also sell what you create. Learn to be persuasive. You can’t just talk people into things.
  7. Be Visible and Communicate Candidly. How you identify and respond to a problem or a crisis is the ultimate test of your character. If you do not communicate frequently, people will develop their own perceptions of the problem and its implications. Knowing when to step up your communications efforts to the right levels during difficulties can be a powerful tool in problem solving. Idea for Impact: Keep your eyes open for customers’ inconveniences, difficulties, and troubles as creative problems to be solved. Focus on problem solving. Be visible. Communicate and lead from the front. Learn how to handle upset customers.

Postscript: This Harvard Business Review article argues that, more than anything else, customers want just a reasonable solution to their expectations. Delighting them by “exceeding their expectations” hardly enhances customer loyalty.

The Cost of Leadership Incivility


Steve Jobs’ Misguided Advice for Being a Good CEO: “Throw Tantrums!”

Indra Nooyi got Advice from Steve Jobs: Throw Tantrums

When Indra Nooyi became CEO of PepsiCo in 2006, she met with Steve Jobs, the famously driven but short-tempered and ruthless leader of Apple. One advice Jobs had for Nooyi on being a good leader: “throw tantrums.”

During this 2016 interview at the Stanford Business School (YouTube video), Nooyi acknowledged Job’s advice as “a valuable lesson.” She elaborated that Jobs advised, “don’t be too nice … when you really don’t get what you want and you really believe that’s the right thing for the company, it’s OK to throw a temper tantrum. Throw things around. People will talk about it, and they’ll know it’s important for you.”

During another 2016 interview, at the New York Times’ DealBook Conference (YouTube video), Nooyi recalled Jobs advise again. “If you really feel strongly about something—if you don’t like something people are doing—throw a temper tantrum. Throw things around, because people have got to know that you feel strongly about it.” Though Nooyi hasn’t gone as far as to throw things around, she disclosed, “I’m beginning to use certain words a little bit more freely and I am screaming a bit more, pounding the table … which is really not the way I was … it is effective. It shows the passion that I have for what I’m doing.”

No Need to Ape the Style of the Icon-of-The-Moment

Leadership Throw TantrumsPeople will go to extraordinary lengths for causes they believe in. Nonetheless, this advice of throwing tantrums and using “certain words a little bit more freely” to express passion is abhorrently misguided, even if it worked for Steve Jobs and Indra Nooyi!

The ultimate impact of a leader hinges on his/her enthusiasm to make the organization’s endeavors personal, to engage others openly, and to draw attention to successes as they emerge. For that reason, Nooyi’s anecdote is demonstrative of Jobs’ passion for building great products.

My primary protestation relates to the reality that leaders model the behavior they want in their organizations. Admissibly, there may be a time and a place to throw temper tantrums at Apple, PepsiCo, or at your organization. However, unchecked and unhindered outbursts of passion, and cursing and incivility are certainly counterproductive.

Steve Jobs could throw temper tantrums because he could! As I have written in previous articles, brilliant men and women can get away with fanatical 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.

Aggressive—and successful—managers and leaders can pressurize, scream, intimidate, and even terrorize their employees. They vindicate that their offensive behavior works because they “deliver the numbers.” Others rationalize their behavior by exclaiming, “Yeah, he’s tough on his people, but judge his abrasiveness in the context of everything he’s achieved.”

The Leader Sets the Tone for Workplace Culture

Workplace incivility can take many subtle forms and it is often provoked by thoughtlessness more willingly than by actual malice. A leader’s behavior tells employees what counts—and what’s rewarded and what’s punished. Leaders are role models. Therefore, others pay attention to everything they say and every move they make.

The tone at the top is the foundation upon which the culture of an organization is built. A leader is the face of an organization and the figurehead to whom employees ultimately look for vision, guidance, and leadership. When leaders throw temper tantrums, swear, or engage in appalling behavior, the message they convey within their organizations is that such behavior is acceptable.

The human brain is wired to learn by imitation. For instance, a child is wired to mimic the behaviors of higher status individuals like parents and teachers. Similarly, adults emulate the behaviors of those they deem of higher status—employees look at their boss to determine how to behave in the organization and what it takes to be promoted. In competitive work environments of the modern day, when employees see that those who have climbed the corporate ladder tolerate or embrace uncivil behavior, they’re likely to follow suit.

'Steve Jobs' by Walter Isaacson (ISBN 1501127624) Postscript: Don’t blatantly imitate a hero. Those of you who worship Steve Jobs had better perceive his operative style as an anomaly rather than as a model of leadership worth imitating. Simply lifting his methods from anecdotes such as Indra Nooyi’s and the Walter Isaacson biography and imposing them on your employees will not necessarily yield Jobs-like results. As I’ve written previously, the career advice that works for the superstars is not necessarily what will work for most ordinary folks. So, don’t be misled by their “it worked for me” advice.