Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Travis Kalanick. Three men who have built the most recognizable brands in the world, and yet the employees who dealt with them directly hated working with them. They were always the smartest ones in the room because no one else could ever get a word in edgewise. They had a genius vision for the future and fired anyone who disagreed. They understood what drove profit but couldn’t grasp what drove people.
They were brilliant, and they were jerks.
You probably know someone like this — a brilliant jerk or toxic leader who challenges everyone, shifts blame to others, but somehow manages to obtain spectacular results. No one really likes working with this type of person, but they continue to move upward.
After one person succeeds in this model, others think that’s how they should play the game in order to succeed, and the cycle continues. Next thing you know, you have a toxic culture that all started with one rotten leader who put their ego before the long-term success of the business and its employees.
Steve Jobs is the perfect paradigm of the brilliant and successful jerk. We of course know Jobs as the man who gave us the Macintosh, the iPod, the iPad and the iPhone and essentially established the “Church of Apple” with all its loyal fans. In his younger years, though, Jobs was mostly known for his temper. He’d become angry when his employees blocked his vision, and he’d throw a bit of a fit. His feedback was almost always generalized and negative. Eventually, the toxic environment he created led to his firing from Apple in 1985.
When Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he had a somewhat better understanding of how to communicate the emotions he was feeling and how to articulate his vision to others. The true success of Apple began in those following years, which brought the iMac, the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad, and a highly human-centric approach to computing and retail.
Mark Zuckerberg was introduced to the world as the kid who shut out his best friend for a majority stake in Facebook, the ubiquitous social network that seems to perpetuate Zuckerberg’s natural apathy toward people. Facebook remains, in essence, an advertising platform that profits from people’s personal data and connections. But when asked directly about how Facebook is good for people, Facebook’s own vice president of social good could not give a convincing answer, only citing initiatives like removing transaction fees for registered nonprofits raising money on Facebook.
As of this writing, Zuckerberg is facing more criticism than ever for Facebook’s toxic work culture as employees are coming out and stating that, “The pressure for us to act as though everything is fine and that we love working here is so great that it hurts.” And with the number of scandals and PR nightmares they’ve had in just the last year, it’s becoming more and more evident that Facebook has a leadership problem.
Travis Kalanick, another brilliant jerk and Uber’s cofounder, was known for his aggressive style and willingness to do anything to win, which ultimately disrupted the entire transportation industry. But his failure to understand people ultimately led to his downfall. When he was let go, more than a dozen top leaders were fired at the same time — because together they created a toxic work environment.
Luckily, Uber’s board members realized that if they were going to continue building a service for people, they would need a CEO who better understood people. They needed a brilliant people person. To that end, they hired Dara Khosrowshahi, a natural listener.
The takeaway? Fish rot from the head. Jerks hire and inspire jerks. The overall reputation and success of a company rests on the strategies of its leaders, and if a leader thinks he can drive people with anger, fear and disgust, the company will fail. Thankfully, with the age of the internet and sites like Monster.com and Glassdoor, it’s easier than ever for employees to share their experiences with brilliant jerks, helping job seekers to identify toxic work environments before it’s too late. For the first time, we’re finally moving past the idea that the words “brilliant” and “jerk” must go together to succeed.