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.

How to Become a Broad-thinker: Principles and Methods

Success depends on understanding basic principles as well as on developing and practicing workable methods.

  • Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, recently advised in his Reddit AMA, “It is important to view knowledge as sort of a semantic tree—make sure you understand the fundamental principles, i.e. the trunk and big branches, before you get into the leaves/details or there is nothing for them to hang on to.”
  • Harrington Emerson, a prominent management consultant and efficiency expert during the early 1900s, is understood to have said that the key to becoming a broad-thinker is to focus on the principles: “As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.” (This quote is often incorrectly attributed to American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.)

How to Become a Broad-thinker: Principles and Methods Principles are the fundamental set of philosophies, propositions, assumptions, laws, and rules concerning a topic, problem, or circumstances. The principles can teach you why something works the way it does.

Methods, on the other hand, are merely devices to apply those principles in a particular circumstance.

While principles are immutable, Emerson reminds us that there can be many methods to interpret and apply those principles.

Principles and Methods

Given the time-pressure induced by the hurried world of work, we are often so tempted to implement ready-made or handed-down methods that we forgo the necessary examination of underpinning principles.

By delving directly into methods, we can find some reliable direction and save a great deal of time, but we may be neglecting many factors that can affect the outcomes of our methods. These circumferential issues, second- and higher-order effects, and peripheral relationships may not be readily apparent at the outset. They will emanate only from a knowledge of the underlying principles.

Idea for Impact: To be an effective thinker, develop a broad understanding and appreciation of the principles before you develop or deploy methods.

Lessons from the Biography of Tesla’s Elon Musk

I recently finished reading Ashlee Vance’s riveting portrait of Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla Motors, CEO of SpaceX, chairman of SolarCity, and previously the founder of PayPal and other companies.

Musk has emerged as the foremost superstar/visionary-entrepreneur of Silicon Valley since Apple’s Steve Jobs passed away in 2011.

'Elon Musk' by Ashlee Vance (ISBN 0062301233) Vance’s biography reveals how Musk’s “willingness to tackle impossible things” has “turned him into a deity in Silicon Valley.”

Vance’s biography portrays Musk as an obsessively focused and a remarkably driven entrepreneur, but one who is almost unbearably difficult to work with. Musk is tirelessly demanding of employees, has low tolerance for underperformers, and does not like to share credit for successful ventures.

The book’s key takeaway is actually an admonitory lesson: Elon Musk may well be one of the most successful entrepreneurs of all time—if your characterization of success is rather narrow. However, having an extreme personality and attaining great success come at the cost of many other things. In his drive to win, Musk sacrifices friends, business associates, and even his family to get what he wants. The story of Elon Musk exemplifies what happens when an overachieving leader regards individuals as tools and attaches more importance to his projects than to his people.

Complement Ashlee Vance’s “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” with biographies of two other entrepreneur-visionaries with aggressively competitive personalities: Walter Isaacson’s “Steve Jobs” and Brad Stone’s “The Everything Store” Like Elon Musk, both Jobs and Bezos are reputed for their personal influence on every aspect of Apple and Amazon’s products and services. They are described as being demanding and demeaning to people who helped them realize their visionary aspirations.