Why Visionary Leaders Have Regrettable Personalities

Great individuals will sometimes behave badly because they can.

Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos are perhaps the most striking entrepreneurs of our time and their collective vision has brought about a different world. Musk especially has captured the popular imagination with innovations in the automobile and space industries.


But the three men are also infamous for pursuing their dreams in no-holds-barred fashion. Walter Isaacson's biography of Jobs portrayed a sensitive man who could nonetheless lash out at even his most dedicated employees. And people who worked for Bezos recalled him saying things like, "Are you lazy or just incompetent?" and, "Why are you wasting my life?"

‘Most customers don’t care how the sausage gets made, as long as it tastes good.’

As details of Musk's life emerge from the new biography, Elon Musk: Tesla, Space X and the Quest for a Fantastic Future, a pattern emerges: brilliant visionaries with unpleasant personalities. Why is this so? And must it be? Tony Schwartz at The New York Times puts forth three explanations:

1. "Genius covers a lot of sins," writes Schwartz. Great individuals will sometimes behave badly because they can. "A great product is a great product, and you don’t have to do everything right to be successful. Most customers don’t care how the sausage gets made, as long as it tastes good."

2. When levels of money and power are achieved in excess, they excuse individuals from the norms that govern the rest of society. Jobs, for example, drove his car without a license and continually parked illegally in handicap spaces. Yet in the court of public opinion, he was beyond reproach. Ditto for Musk and Bezos.

3. Visionaries are fearful people, says Schwartz. They are afraid of losing control of their vision and, because they have further to fall, are typically terrified at the prospect of failure. But fear is ultimately a poor motivator for underlings and we can only wonder how much more were possible if our most brilliant people were also the most kind and generous.

Nonetheless, Jobs was able to form a large team of extremely loyal engineers and designers. As his biographer Isaacson explains, the teamwork on display at Apple is what Jobs considered his favorite product. That's telling, both because Jobs considered people to be the most important and because he considered them a product.

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