I read a lot of biographies. In the last six months I have read biographies of CS Lewis, Calvin Coolidge, Catherine the Great, Genghis Khan, Thomas Jefferson, Rasputin, Glenn Gould, Lyndon Johnson, ExxonMobil, Winston Churchill and a book that was essentially a biography of FA Hayek and Milton Friedman. You will note that all of these folks plied their trade at least a generation ago.
As you can tell, I prefer to read about folks whose legacy has marinated a bit. I have read real time bios in the past but I find they can be coloured with the direct biases of the writer (for or against) whereas when the writer doesn’t rely on his or her direct experience it tends to be a better product. But I heard Malcolm Gladwell urging folks to read the Steve Jobs biography and he is right. It is a tour de force. Well worth the read.
It, among other things, prompted this column that ran in the TJ yesterday:
Do we need more jerks?
I recently finished reading the biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs.
There is no way to sugar coat it. Steve Jobs was a jerk.
He was tyrant as a boss and belligerent with his colleagues and partners. He would berate the stupidity of ideas put forward by staff and subsequently take credit for them as his own. He didn’t even like customers much and detested market research and focus groups. This nastiness extended into his private life. He would purposely park his car in spaces reserved for handicapped people. He abandoned his first child, backstabbed long -time friends and despite his enormous wealth had virtually no interest in philanthropy.
Steve Jobs will go down in history as one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs as a result of his successes with Apple and Pixar. More importantly for me, these companies generate tens of billions of dollars in tax revenues every year for governments around the world.
While Steve Jobs was an outlier there is ample research on the personality traits of very successful entrepreneurs and it turns out most are not particularly nice people. They are narcissistic, single-minded, passionate and highly driven and they expect everyone around them to be the same. They will run roughshod over employees, partners and anyone else that gets in their way. They can’t stand incompetence.
Contrast that with the personality traits of the typical New Brunswicker. We are nice to a fault. When you ask someone in Toronto or Calgary to describe a New Brunswicker they will use terms like ‘friendly’ and ‘laid back’. Is there a fundamental incompatibility between highly ambitious entrepreneurship and the very cultural attributes that we work to nurture in this province? Could this be a main reason why we turn out so few highly successful entrepreneurs? Of course the reality is not so simple. While virtually all successful entrepreneurs and leaders are driven and push those around them to strive for excellence – not all of them are jerks. Conversely, there are lots of disagreeable people around that do not build great companies or transform lethargic organizations.
But this is still an important question worth asking. Do we need more hard-nosed, risk averse, narcissistic entrepreneurs prepared to step on a few toes to move their companies ahead?
I extend this argument even further. Do we need this kind of leader across New Brunswick society in government, education and public institutions? Do we need tough guys and gals that push back against incompetence and relentlessly drive their organizations to be world beaters?
I suspect many New Brunswickers would say no. They would say our laid back and friendly demeanour is the best part of our culture. The last thing we need is a bunch of hard drivers making the world uncomfortable for everyone else. But a little discomfort may be just what we need right now. In his excellent new book, Antifragile, Nassim Taleb describes how organizations atrophy and eventually waste way if they are not in a constant state of stress or discomfort. It’s the stress on our bodies when we exercise that makes us stronger. The same holds for companies, government departments, educational institutions and, I would argue, for New Brunswick as a whole.
For most folks, it’s pretty comfortable these days in New Brunswick. Maybe the EI reforms will inject a little needed stress. Maybe the tightening of public spending will help people start to better understand the link between a vibrant economy and their personal quality of life.
But more than the ‘what’, even more importantly, ‘who’ is going to shake us out of our comfort zone?
Maybe we need a few more jerks starting companies and occupying key leadership positions to shake things up. If we don’t have them already, perhaps we should attract them here.
Calling all jerks with a demonstrated track record in leadership or successful entrepreneurship…. have we got a job for you.