Visionaries or Villains? Which Leadership Style will Change the World?

I’m a little obsessed with Elon Musk at the moment and it got me thinking about visionaries and their leadership philosophies. Individuals like Elon Musk, Steve Jobs, and Jeff Bezos are disrupting industries, changing the world as we know it today, and are shaping what it will look like in the future. Yet you’ve all heard the stories about them. Brilliant thought leaders. Visionaries. Industry giants. Complete assholes.

Yesterday, Vox Technology published an article about Elon Musk’s belief that we are most likely participants in an advanced civilization’s video game. Perhaps these outlandish ideas and distorted realities are what allow these leaders to disconnect from humanity. (And then again, perhaps Musk is right.) Either way, these guys have built incredible companies but are missing (in my opinion) a pretty critical element to leadership – human connection. Their total apathy for their employees is legendary. Does the end (Amazon, iPhones, Tesla, iTunes, Mars colonization) really justify the means?

Let’s look at Steve Jobs. Perhaps the most tyrannical leaders in recent history (though Elon Musk might be wearing that badge now). Jobs fired employees without warning (in some cases publicly), short changed Steve Wozniak on a large bonus, constantly berated and harshly criticized his team members and partners, and generally went around acting like a complete jerk to anyone he came in contact with (employees, the general public, the President). But he got results. And he transformed multiple industries.

And Jeff Bezos? At Amazon, he has created Amabots – employees who work 80+ hours a week, sometimes working for days straight, who fear taking vacations or personal time because they will be placed on a “performance improvement plan”, who can frequently be found crying at their desks, and who are encouraged to send anonymous complaints and critiques about co-workers and managers. Read the Amazon expose here. But he gets results. And he has changed the way we shop online.

Elon Musk is my current favorite. He is ridiculously brilliant and actually makes me feel insignificant as a human being when I look at everything he’s done (I know, I know, comparison is the thief of joy). You may have heard this story: Musk’s long-time assistant who basically devoted her life to him asked for a raise. Musk suggested she take a 3 week vacation and if her job was that difficult/the value she provided was really invaluable, he would consider her proposal. He fired her while she was gone. In his biography, the author talks about Musk viewing his employees like ammunition, use them as much as you can and when they are completed exhausted and you have exhausted their worth, discard them like shells. But he gets results. Musk wants a colony on Mars and I don’t doubt that he will achieve that.

But let us not forget that there are usually three sides to every story – my side, your side, and the truth, and the examples above are only part of the story. Many employees admit to the tyrannical work environment, but also say it changed the trajectory of their career or challenged them to reach beyond what they thought possible. And what some of these stories brush over is that these leaders were the hardest working of them all, which is probably why they demanded so much of their staff. Sure, Musk might ask you to work 20 hours, but he would work 23 that day. They are all so fanatical and intense in their drive to change the world that they expect everyone else to feel the same way and if their team couldn’t hack it, it just slowed them down. On to the next person. Yes, these leaders are so committed to changing the world that they forget the human element. Relationships, personal lives, even money all take a back seat to the pursuit of change and creating a better world for man kind. But we need these individuals, right?

Do they think so big that they can’t see the impact they have on those around them? Are they so committed to their goal and vision that they will do whatever it takes to accomplish it, including pushing people to their breaking point? Is there a middle ground? A place where extraordinary growth and innovation can occur, while still taking into considering the human element?

Leaders like Jobs, Musk, and Bezos have a place in our world, and their methods, while controversial, are effective. But I believe there is a middle ground between head-in-the-clouds visionary and diabolical villain. So how do you push your employees to peak performance and productivity with love? How do you inspire people to tackle impossible goals while encouraging them to care for themselves and their families? Can you change the world without an iron fist?

Look, I’m not about to call a meeting where we hold hands and share feelings; but neither do I believe in public humiliation and driving people to their breaking point for sport. I think that we must set our standards high and then clearly define them. Let your standards be the bad guy. Metrics, numbers, standards – they are all essential to an organization’s growth. They provide a common language that everyone clearly understands. For example, which objective is more clear:

  1. Create a new customer engagement campaign.
  2. Create a new customer engagement campaign that generates 100 referrals in the next 60 days.

When the project is complete, all you need to ask is, “Did we hit 100 referrals?” The answer is either yes or no. The numbers will tell the real story. And you are able to hold your employees to these standards without any stories, excuses, or emotions getting in the way. Whatever your standard is in your life or business – you have to be okay with the outcome. People will either meet their goals or they won’t, but their inability to meet company goals/objectives should never limit your life and the growth of your business. Okay, I know that may sound a bit cold. But that’s the point. The standards/goals/metrics are doing the heavy lifting here. This goes for yearly goals, performance reviews, profit margins, sales volume, etc. Clearly define the target and deadline and allow your employees the freedom to execute. In that regard, I am very much in agreement with Jobs, Musk, and Bezos. It is always about the results and there is always a way to get it done. Excuses are not welcome in my world.

But where I think these guys have got it wrong is that there is no real WIN for these team members. Income aside (and it’s hard to say if the incomes were even in line with 80+ hour work weeks), these employees knew they were expendable and were sacrificing their health and personal lives to further the agenda of these behemoths. I believe that people are the most important part of an organization. If you don’t have people – the right people – who are motivated, engaged, challenged, and fulfilled by you and your organization, then what do you have?  Being a part of something big (i.e. Apple) will only carry you so far if your health is deteriorating, your marriage is falling apart, and you’re sleeping under your desk. I’m not really a huge proponent of office perks like free food, movie screenings, massage therapists on staff, etc. But I do believe in big wins like profit share, paid training and education, and pouring into employees every day to show them how to live the life they want while working within your organization.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an easy balance between pushing for big results and huge growth  while caring for employees and maintaining that human connection. I don’t always get it right. (I’m pretty sure I’ve only made a few people cry along the way.) But I make a conscious effort every day to spread the vision of my organization and teach people how to achieve personal growth through business success, all while holding them [brutally] accountable to the standards. Right or wrong, this is how I roll.

I’m not trying to vilify these leaders here. I like the outcomes and results in terms of the impact on humanity that people like Elon Musk have created. And I will note that when Jobs reclaimed his position as CEO in 1997, he was a much better leader. He realized he could not succeed alone. Jobs was, and Musk is, an amazing teacher to those around them. These leaders all have a knack for surrounding themselves with the highest level talent on earth. They knew they needed people, they just didn’t care how that relationship was cultivated or managed. I respect the hell out of these guys, however, I would never want to be them. I love my work and my companies, but I believe in counter balancing. Hitting it really hard at the office for a few months, then unplugging and hitting it hard on vacation. Or giving everything I have during a 6 hour, intensely focused work day, and then going home for dinner with the family, or hiking, or mountain biking. I think that the best life and the best leaders are ones who are constantly working on improving themselves and their vision, so that they can give more to others.

Bottom line: You do not have to be an asshole to make an impact on the world. Create and communicate your values and standards, challenge and push people to achieve these goals, hold them accountable to the results, while helping them grow and teaching them how to live their best life – a life without limits.

The man, Zig Zigler, sums it up perfectly,

“You don’t build a business. You build people and then people build the business.”

While the dictatorship style leadership is not for me, I appreciate everything those leaders have accomplished. I just believe there is another way.

What do you think? What style of leadership best serves an organization? Can extraordinary growth and innovation occur only when the human element is disregarded? Leave your thoughts in the comments. I’m looking forward to the discussion!




    1. Adam

      exactly. when you implement standards and expectations for your team, they may think you are being hard on them, but you are really just being hard on the standards.

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