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No, visionaries don’t have to be jerks

Elon Musk is widely recognized as a visionary. He cofounded PayPal and then moved on to a dizzying range of businesses: electric vehicles, energy generation, machine interfacing, even space travel. His aim always is to completely revolutionize every industry he turns his hand to.

None of the new ventures is a concrete success just yet; but we can only applaud at the scale of the ambition.

Mr Musk is also a “personality” – which, translated, means he’s a bit of a jerk.

He engages combatively, shall we say, with people who shouldn’t be his combatants at all: investors, employees, the media. Those are amongst a CEO’s core constituencies. He should have no business mocking, dissing or otherwise taking them on. Yet he does, repeatedly. He was recently embroiled in the unseemly hurling of insults at a naval rescuer who rejected Mr Musk’s bizarre offers of help during the recent crisis in Thailand where schoolboys were trapped in a cave.

Mr Musk is not alone. Many highflying business inventors and leaders have been colourful personalities, from Howard Hughes to Steve Jobs, and most recently, Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber. Many of these very charismatic leaders seem to succumb to a combination of hubris, overconfidence, narcissism and loss of self-control.

Should we forgive them this side of their personalities? Is it OK to be a jerk if you’re also a business visionary? Steve Jobs was, by many accounts, a seriously unpleasant man. He would berate and belittle many people in his circle. And yet he founded and led what became one of the world’s most successful and beloved companies. Mr Kalanick revolutionized the taxi industry and made cheaper private travel available to many more millions of people. Should we accept the bad behaviour?

Psychologists Darko Lovric and Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic think not. In the Harvard Business Review recently, they point out that exceptional success often leads to abnormal behaviour. Those who taste the dizzying heights lose touch with the boundaries of their abilities, and start imagining they are capable of anything. They get carried away by praise. They become surrounded by flatterers and sycophants. And they lose the consequences of bad behaviour – they simply get away with being boorish.

But let us not take any of this as acceptable, warn the professors. More importantly, let us not imagine that such extreme traits cause entrepreneurial success. It is fact more likely that exceptionally talented individuals succeed despite having questionable traits. “Dark side” behaviours may be exacerbated by success; but they do not cause it. They are a problem – a problem that has to be dealt with.

From my own interactions with remarkably successful entrepreneurs and business leaders, I confirm that those who lead trailblazing companies are often unbalanced individuals. They take risks others wouldn’t contemplate; they have enormous self-belief; they refuse to bow down to adversity. Those characteristics do, of course, explain some of their success. But not all of it. When confidence turns to narcissism and boldness turns to madness, such individuals have to be reined in – or ejected.

Mr Musk’s increasingly aberrant behaviour may be coming from a growing realization that his Tesla brand may not have the production know-how to scale up – and that his much-mocked traditional competitors are now breathing down his neck with their own electric vehicles.

When someone becomes bigger than his company, starts hogging media attention and embroiling the firm in scrapes with all and sundry, it’s usually time to take stock. The “grownups” usually have to step in and help the tantrum-throwing spoilt child. Sometimes that leads to a parting of ways (as happened to the young Mr Jobs, and to Mr Kalanick); sometimes the individual has the sense to adapt and evolve.

No matter who you are and what you’ve done, you are but a collection of molecules like the rest of us. There is nothing that special about any one human being. We are only special as a collective, and then too only if we raise ourselves up to be. Humility is key. The truly wise know there is no choice but to be humble. All else is a delusion.

A high achiever also needs to be able to embrace checks and balances; learn to accept limitations on personal power; and, to be coachable – to foster a trusted group of friends, advisors and professionals who can give objective feedback and act as a sounding board.

We are all flawed. But success does not give us the right to amplify our flaws and turn into intolerant boors. The wise stay grounded.

[Update: a couple of days after I wrote this, Elon Musk was forced to step down from chairing Tesla and fined USD 20 million by the US Securities & Exchange Commission, for violating anti-fraud provisions of the federal securities laws. Tesla has also agreed to appoint two new independent directors to its board; establish a new committee of independent directors; and put in place additional controls and procedures to oversee Musk’s communications.]

(Sunday Nation, 30 September 2018)

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