Is the creative CEO in the company you work for or in the company that you are investing in brilliant, a jerk, or both? We have seen numerous examples of visionary corporate leaders who set out to change the world. Some have succeeded like Steve Jobs who built Apple into a trillion-dollar company. Others are like Elizabeth Holmes who created Theranos as an innovative blood testing company and then took the company into bankruptcy losing investors almost a billion dollars.
Steve Jobs has been referred to as a “brilliant jerk”. Elon Musk, the trailblazer CEO at Tesla, has behaved so erratically in the past year that many have questioned his ability to govern. Travis Kalanick’s leadership at Uber changed the city transportation industry but led him to be tossed out of the company he founded. One exasperated Uber board member proposed adding “No brilliant jerks allowed” to Uber’s list of cultural values.
So, how can you tell whether your creative leader is going to be a Steve Jobs or Jeff Bezos creating amazing companies or an Elizabeth Holmes or Kenneth Lay (from Enron) that destroyed their companies? How can you tell the difference? These are critical questions for board members, investors, employees, and others that choose to work with dominant visionaries.
To answer these questions, we talked with leading board members and executives that work with dominant visionaries and are able to provide some guidance on how to detect the red flags and develop approaches to successfully managing and working with these leaders. These are explored in our new book “The Brilliant Jerk Conundrum: Thriving with and Governing a Dominant Visionary.”
The challenge for board members, investors, and employees alike is how to deal with these dominant visionaries who are often brilliant, unpredictable, difficult to work with, and sometimes downright mean. But, it is also how to support the creative talent of brilliant new leaders while still maintaining the necessary structure, systems, and guidance that is required for effective corporate governance.
What Is Different About Dealing With Dominant Visionaries?
1) They really are different
Dominant visionaries show up in new Silicon Valley start-ups and also in old established companies. They can be the CEO and founder, or they can be other executives who are not afraid to exercise their power. No matter what their origin or position, they are charismatic leaders with a disruptive vision. And, their magnetic personality and story attract investors, customers, and employees. They are all confident. But, sometimes they have hubris and are overconfident.
There have been some amazing successes like Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. However, the history of these eccentric visionary leaders is mixed. While some of these leaders soar and achieve great success, others crash and burn. When we look at the spectrum of these extraordinary leaders, we see brilliance combined with stubbornness and a penchant for breaking rules. Some of these firebrands start out acting as role models but then deteriorate into unattractive behaviors, sometimes turning into jerks or liars or both.
2) They lead with executive omniscience
Dominant visionaries typically use three ways to control their companies and we call this the aura of executive omniscience:
Asymmetric power. Often dominant visionaries have almost total control over their boards. Boards are supposed to be independent. But in many instances the CEO is also chairman and is able to direct the outcome of all votes. In addition, dual class ownership structures may provide the leader with absolute voting control.
Cult of personality. Many of these leaders are visionaries with bigger-than-life personalities coupled with a story of how they will change an industry and maybe the world. They are quite persuasive and able to convince people to follow them. These leaders exude confidence and may bully people in pursuit of their vision.
Opaqueness. By controlling the free flow of information, leaders are often able to block visibility to performance data that is critical to effective decision making and governance. When the board is not provided with information needed to govern and is shielded from a clear picture of company performance, governance is significantly harmed.
The presence of any of these three elements does not guarantee there will be a problem. But when these are present, it is a clear signal there could be a problem.
There is a lot at stake here
Two important lessons emerged from our discussions with board members, extensive research, and experience dealing with the conundrums of multiple brilliant jerks:
1) The presence of an authoritarian trailblazer requires special handling. The traditional corporate governance principles are needed, but must be supplemented with additional practices. With an inspired and highly controlling powerhouse at the helm, boards, investors, and employees need to be ready for a different journey.
2) The best actions to govern, thrive, and survive depend on the type of visionary you are dealing with. Dominant visionaries are not all the same. With some visionaries, there is a risk of getting in the way and curtailing the value they could create. With other types, complacency is a huge mistake. Left unsupervised, their behavior could destroy the company.
Our work is at the nexus of corporate governance and innovation and looks at how boards and others can best manage and work with leaders like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk and other dominant visionaries to maintain corporate control while not stifling innovation and creativity. This is the conundrum.