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.

Don’t Blatantly Imitate a Hero: Be Yourself

Heroes are very useful—they embody a higher plateau of truth, knowledge, and accomplishment that you can aspire to.

While admiring and drawing inspiration from heroes can be productive, blatantly imitating them is simply foolish.

Lei Jun, the Steve Jobs-mimicking chief of Chinese consumer electronics company Xiaomi

The black turtleneck syndrome

Consider Lei Jun, the Steve Jobs-mimicking chief of Chinese consumer electronics company Xiaomi. Jun has not only made Xiaomi the world’s fourth-largest smartphone maker by copying Apple’s products but also cultivated a blatant Jobsian likeness—right down to wearing dark shirts and jeans in the vein of Steve Jobs and mimicking his presentation style.

Lei Jun is not alone in taking this admiration of Steve Jobs beyond inspiration to blatant imitation. After reading Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Steve Jobs, many people started to actually think and act like Steve Jobs. Some have even embraced catchphrases like “one more thing,” the expression Jobs used in his presentations prior to introducing new Apple products.

You aren’t Steve Jobs, your company isn’t Apple, so why try to be Steve Jobs?

Steve Jobs-mimicking Lei Jun of Xiaomi Undoubtedly, Steve Jobs was a determined and ambitious leader who created renowned products that transformed many industries. He intuitively understood what makes a compelling product, in both concept and design. He was a visionary and brilliant innovator who integrated insights from diverse disciplines and paid great attention to the design-details of Apple’s products and services. He was intensely focused, committed, confident enough to take risky leaps, and charismatic enough to enlist legions of employees and customers in the inexorable pursuit of his aspirations.

Those are all fine traits in the right context, but simply lifting them from Steve Jobs’s biography and imposing them on your employees will not necessarily yield Jobs-like results. You could sink your business if you blindly use Jobs’s or any other celebrity manager’s leadership style and behaviors in the wrong context, product, strategy, or market.

Imitation will not conjure success

'Winning' by Jack Welch, Suzy Welch (ISBN 0060753943) Long before Steve Jobs was Jack Welch, whom Fortune magazine dubbed “Manager of the Century” in 1999. Between 1981 and 2001, as General Electric’s CEO, Welch became a cult figure among American managers and leaders. By means of intellect, energy, and straight talk, Welch transformed the sleepy giant of General Electric (GE) into an international business powerhouse.

Jack Welch was widely regarded as the transformative manager’s archetype. Managers read his leadership playbook religiously and tried to imitate everything he did at GE—from his 20-70-10 “rank and yank” process to adopting six-sigma methods. These imitators often failed to realize that a number of factors contributed to the success of Welch’s techniques, not the least of which was the strong organizational culture and leadership philosophy he had established at GE. Managers simply will not successfully imitate Welch’s techniques without first establishing the organizational context that allowed for his initiatives’ success.

Idea for Impact: You can learn a lot from your heroes, but don’t emulate it all

Most intellectual, cognitive, and people skills are situational. That is to say that there is a time for Jack Welch’s techniques, another time for Steve Jobs’s techniques, and still other times for others’ techniques. The real skill lies in accumulating many ideas in your “brain attic” and then diagnosing your situations to apply the appropriate technique at the appropriate time.

You can learn a lot from your heroes, but don’t pattern your lives after them. See if some of the things they did will work for you. Develop your own style by focusing on what matters to you in your context. Don’t become second-rate versions of people you admire; instead be first-rate version of yourself.