Which is better: a CEO who tolerates mediocrity or one who throws tantrums?

From The Secrets of Bezos:

Intensity is hardly rare among technology CEOs. Steve Jobs was as famous for his volatility with Apple subordinates as he was for the clarity of his insights about customers. He fired employees in the elevator and screamed at underperforming executives. Bill Gates used to throw epic tantrums at Microsoft; Steve Ballmer, his successor, had a propensity for throwing chairs. Andy Grove, the former CEO of Intel, was so harsh and intimidating that a subordinate once fainted during a performance review.

Bezos fits comfortably into this mold. His drive and boldness trumps other leadership ideals, such as consensus building and promoting civility. While he can be charming and capable of great humor in public, in private he explodes into what some of his underlings call nutters. A colleague failing to meet Bezos’s exacting standards will set off a nutter. If an employee does not have the right answers or tries to bluff, or takes credit for someone else’s work, or exhibits a whiff of internal politics, uncertainty, or frailty in the heat of battle—a blood vessel in Bezos’s forehead bulges and his filter falls away.

If I had to choose between a manager who tolerates mediocrity and a manager who throws “nutters”, I’d go for the manager who throws nutters any day. Why? Because the most successful companies are built by managers who strive for, and demand excellence. They care passionately about their product and company. Passionately enough to throw “nutters”.

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7 thoughts on “Which is better: a CEO who tolerates mediocrity or one who throws tantrums?

  1. You can strive for and demand excellence in others. It diminishes you as a person if you can’t control your anger. Maybe the fainting, terrified employees would do better to move on elsewhere?

  2. I think that this is a completely false dichotomy. Commitment to excellence and self control are not opposites. They are 2 different desirable traits. I think most workers want to be in an environment where both are valued and exemplified.

    Even people who are top performers don’t want to work in an environment where they are subject to random abuse for trivial infractions, or could be fired in an elevator for presumably transient reasons. It’s also unimaginable for this trait to be applied at scale. Imagine if everyone spent the day berating each other for small failings!

    Tantrums also quickly lose any connection to the trigger. Clearly it is not possible to throw a tantrum at every small infraction, so a few get singled out randomly for abuse. The correlation with the trigger dissolves, and people just write them off as an idiosyncrasy of the tantrum thrower. If they lead to serious consequences, people leave so they can avoid exposure to being randomly demoted or fired.

    I don’t think the examples of particular idiosyncratic CEOs are prescriptive. There are also many counterexamples – people with these personalities who ruined their companies through such behavior, and people with milder personalities who succeeded.

    A much better policy in my opinion is to set meaningful and attainable standards and hold people to them. If they fall short and it is reparable, motivate and teach them to change. If not, replace them. I don’t usually see how “drama” can help.

    People are not paid to be abused. They are paid to do work to the best of their ability. And the job of management is not to abuse – it is to motivate through both positive and negative reinforcement. Resorting to abusive methods of leadership guarantees that people will reject the leadership.

    • Aaron, I agree with your comment. Like you, I also oppose abusive behavior, both ethically and because of the practical reasons you outlined — it just doesn’t work.

      My goal with the blog is to raise important issues for discussion, with pithy, fun posts. The point of this post was to point out that many of those CEOs are famous because they’ve succeeded in setting standards of excellence. A culture which tolerates mediocrity is fatal. Their tantrums are related to their passion and insistence on excellence, even if their abusive behavior is inexcusable.

      I raised the issue by being intentionally controversial, framing the issue as “if you had to choose between mediocrity and abusive behavior, which would you choose?” And the last line of the post — “Passionate enough to throw “nutters” — was open to misinterpretation that commitment to excellence goes hand in hand with abusive behavior.

      In reality, neither abusive management behavior nor tolerating mediocrity are excusable. Yes, we can have both: great managers with self-control, and an absolute commitment to excellence.

    • Nothing was said about “Random” tantrums.
      Big emotional involvement good or bad is a lot better then the standard non caring way of responding to things for the most case. (sure everything over done tends to be negative)
      For the writing everything was made to look conversational.
      But basically what they said is that these CEO’s cared a lot and showed it in their own distinct way. (sounds like expectedly and repeatable and not random, probably with a lot of intent behind)
      I think no one can ignore David’s emotional talk, it’s intense, but not negative.
      Raising emotions is what gets people to act.
      It’s what every good leader, in every field had.
      Google interviews involve people coming in cow customs, people in Rollerblades etc.
      That’s also extreme and emotional trying to be different and get people that aren’t in the “normal” “get a task and obey” mentality. Breaking all normal patterns for this process.
      I was in one startup the HR(human resource) person interviewing insisted sitting on a beanbag doing that interview… (not comfortable in any way, but I assume she had her reasons. We were in the office playroom)
      All crazy stuff.
      Will good people like normal, standard and boring? or some (reasonable) craziness? I would think the latter. (we wouldn’t have amusement parks, movies etc if people didn’t like some craziness)
      As said in the start, everything in life is about proportions and quantities.

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