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.

Beware of Advice from the Superstars


Steve Jobs’s Eschewal of Market Research

'Steve Jobs' by Walter Isaacson (ISBN 1501127624) Apple’s Steve Jobs said in a 1985 interview, “We built [the Mac] for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research.”

Twelve years later, he famously told BusinessWeek: “It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Throughout his illustrious career, Jobs eschewed market research and relied on his intuition. The aforementioned two quotes have become as legendary as the highly opinionated man himself. Reiterating Steve Jobs’ talent to see the needs of consumers before they themselves could, Apple’s Chief Design Officer and co-creator of Apple’s iconic products Jonathan Ive stated, “We don’t do focus groups—that is the job of the [product] designer. It’s unfair to ask people who don’t have a sense of the opportunities of tomorrow from the context of today to design.”

Take Away: Alas, many people who venerate Jobs have taken his message as a pretext to downplay the need for consumer research. Jobs may be correct, but his assertion is perhaps confined to the kind of pioneering products and services he introduced at Apple and Pixar. Most people who claim to be inspired by this lesson from Jobs’s career neither work in the narrow consumer electronics domain nor have their hero’s brilliant intuition and an extraordinarily gifted creative team to sidestep market research and customer input.

Stephen King’s Disdain for Outlines in Writing

'On Writing A Memoir of the Craft' by Stephen King (ISBN 1439156816) In the bestseller On Writing, celebrated American author Stephen King famously states that he never uses an outline to organize his thoughts. He describes the routine of outlining as “the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored. … I don’t take notes; I don’t outline, I don’t do anything like that. I just flail away at the goddamn thing.” King advised other writers to keep from using outlines.

Take Away: Legions of King’s fans assumed that since this technique works so well for him, it must work for them too. Alas, they were mistaken: they aren’t as talented as him and cannot work without generating a detailed outline for a road map of creative writing. What works for writers—amateurs and professionals—is the advice of Terry Brooks, another famous American author, who wrote in his Sometimes the Magic Works, “Perhaps the best reason of all for outlining is that it frees you up immeasurably during the writing process to concentrate on matters other than plot.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s Privileged Work-Life Balance

'Lean In' by Sheryl Sandberg (ISBN 0385349947) Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg wrote a prominent career advice book and feminist manifesto called Lean In. Sandberg urges women to fight for gender equality and be assertive to achieve career success.

Sandberg’s writing has been criticized for being out of touch with the reality that most women face. She establishes much of her “you-can-do-it-too” counsel on her own experience as a successful woman who’s balanced her career and family through high profile jobs at Google and Facebook.

Take Away: Few people come from as privileged a socio-economic background as Sandberg to obtain two Harvard degrees, get an illustrious mentor at college, work on prestigious research projects at the World Bank, and acquire hundreds of millions of personal wealth by their mid-careers. Few women can aspire to be as fairy-tale affluent, talented, and privileged as Sandberg. Few can afford to hire assistants and domestic help to help balance the demands of personal and professional life. Few people have the benefit of working in the upper echelons of progressive corporate environments such as those at Google and Facebook that make it as conducive to “lean in” like her.

What Worked for Them Won’t Work for You

If you read about how successful people get successful, remember that 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.

If a specific technique worked for Steve Jobs, Stephen King, Sheryl Sandberg, or anybody else who gives you advice, don’t assume it will work for you too. Alas, you are likely not as naturally brilliant, gifted, endowed, or disposed as they are. Neither are you as privileged to have access to the resources they can tap into.

Beware of Advice from the Superstars In addition, in giving advice, superstars tend to understate—perhaps intentionally—the role that circumstances played in their success. On balance, much of success in life is a product of luck—being at the right time, at the right place, with the right people. Alas, what worked in their circumstances may not work in yours.

The Buddha taught prudence in such matters. He asked disciples to do what he taught only if it worked in the context of their own lives. He encouraged disciples to listen to his ideas, mull them over, try out what made sense, subsequently adapting what worked, and discarding what did not work.

The best way to educate yourself is by exposing yourself to a variety of success principles. Observe the top performers in your field. Then, identify, emulate, and adapt their effectiveness techniques to your circumstances. (See my previous article.)

Idea for Impact: Expose yourself to many success principles and consider what qualities, attributes, mental models, or approaches to life you may want to assimilate into who you are, even in part. Don’t expect to blatantly imitate a hero and expect the same outcomes: BE YOURSELF.

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.

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.

Three Great Commencement Speeches by Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, and J.K. Rowling

The commencement season is upon us. On these momentous occasions, students celebrate their academic achievements and prepare to transit from one pivotal life experience to another.

In graduation speeches, students hear reflections of personal stories and timeless advice from accomplished individuals. While commencement speeches are brimming with plenty of patently obvious advice such as “pursue whatever you do with passion,” speeches such as the ones featured below are truly motivating.

I have coached many students graduating this year and I have recognized that, despite a gloomy job market and other challenges ahead, this year’s graduating classes seem to be more optimistic than previous classes with which I have interacted. My very best to them.

Steve Jobs: “Don’t waste your time living someone else’s life”

Steve Jobs, Commencement Speech at Stanford | June 12, 2005 Steve Jobs cofounded Apple Computer Inc. at age 21 in 1976, got fired in 1985, and returned in 1997 to lead one of the most remarkable corporate turnarounds in business history. The product and marketing visions he has since executed have elevated him to the status of a business and media superstar. Steve Jobs had a cancerous pancreatic tumor removed in 2004 and underwent a liver transplant in 2009.

In his 2005 commencement address (transcript, video) at Stanford University, Steve Jobs urged graduates to pursue their dreams and fulfill the opportunities in life’s setbacks:

  • Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. … Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it.
  • Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of other’s opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.

Bill Gates: “Address the world’s deepest inequities”

Bill Gates, Commencement Speech at Harvard | June 7, 2007 Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft and Corbis, is currently the world’s most influential philanthropist. His Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has donated billions of dollars to world health causes, particularly toward the eradication of infectious diseases.

In his 2007 commencement address (transcript, video) at Harvard University, Bill Gates urged graduates to discover and help solve the health and social inequalities that the world faces:

  • I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world — the appalling disparities of health, and wealth, and opportunity that condemn millions of people to lives of despair. … Humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries — but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity. Whether through democracy, strong public education, quality health care, or broad economic opportunity — reducing inequity is the highest human achievement.
  • If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. … I hope you will come back here to Harvard 30 years from now and reflect on what you have done with your talent and your energy. I hope you will judge yourselves not on your professional accomplishments alone, but also on how well you have addressed the world’s deepest inequities … on how well you treated people a world away who have nothing in common with you but their humanity.

J.K. Rowling: “The benefits of failure”

J K Rowling, Commencement Speech at Harvard | June 5, 2008 J.K. Rowling, the celebrated author of the Harry Potter series of fantasy novels, is a classic “rags to riches” life success story. At the age of 28, as a depressed, unemployed single mother who lived on welfare, J.K. Rowling started writing the first Harry Potter book at a café. Within five years, thanks to the success of Harry Potter, she rose from obscurity to literary prominence and became a billionaire.

In her 2008 commencement address (transcript, video) at Harvard University, J.K. Rowling urges graduates to persist through failures and despondency:

  • Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. … Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.
  • Failure gave me an inner security that I had never attained by passing examinations. Failure taught me things about myself that I could have learned no other way. I discovered that I had a strong will, and more discipline than I had suspected; I also found out that I had friends whose value was truly above the price of rubies.
  • The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive. You will never truly know yourself, or the strength of your relationships, until both have been tested by adversity.