On brilliant but cruel bosses

To what degree should we tolerate superstar bosses who treat others like dirt?

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Tony Schwartz writes about visionary leaders such as the late Steve Jobs (Apple), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and Elon Musk (Tesla), who are well known for their nasty and cruel behaviors toward co-workers, especially underlings. Predictably, the piece raises questions about how much extra leeway should be granted these geniuses in view of their unique gifts.

When I give talks or interviews about bad bosses and workplace bullying, oftentimes some variation of this question comes up: If you want to stop workplace bullying, then does that mean we’ll lose the contributions of people like Steve Jobs? The hidden assumption behind the question is that we’ll all be deprived if these gifted but sometimes mean-spirited people are chased out of the workplace. The irony isn’t lost on me, given the iPhone, iPad, and MacBook I use just about every day.

Well, I’m not here to call for a boycott on companies and organizations that have nasty bosses. (That might cut out a lot of places.) But I do want to take a deeper look at this visionary-but-cruel scenario that is sometimes posed as a gotcha question:

1. At the line — Yup, some of these folks may highlight the light between the abrasive boss and the abusive one. Personally, I don’t think that being a major league jerk necessarily equates with being an abusive bully, but it can if the behaviors are bad enough.

2. Crossing the line — That said, once the behavior crosses into cruelty, verbal abuse, or physical abuse, then some type of intervention is appropriate. OK, so maybe the Master of the World isn’t going to be shown the exit ramp as quickly as a mail room clerk with anger management problems, but extraordinary talent doesn’t justify abuse of others.

3. Public accountability — Especially when horrible bosses live in the spotlight and reap the accolades for their successes, then it’s absolutely right for their acts of work-related, interpersonal mistreatment to be known, too. A public legacy should cover the waterfront. It’s not unfair for folks like Jobs, Bezos, and Musk to be called out for their terrible treatment of co-workers.

4. Indispensable, visionary superstars are rare — People like Steve Jobs come along oh-so-rarely. Most cruel bosses are wholly, utterly expendable. We should be attune to the fact that many of them, especially those with deeply narcissistic tendencies, are often skilled at creating a mythology about their value to the enterprise, especially among those who control their fates.

In a piece I wrote several years ago, “Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership” (Journal of Values-Based Leadership, 2008), I suggested that a strong test of an organization’s values and ethics is how it handles a case of severe workplace bullying perpetrated by one of its leading executives or “rainmakers.” I stand behind that point today. Institutions that sweep work abuse under the rug because the perpetrator is at or near the top of the organizational chart are among the lowest of the low.

11 responses

  1. My former boss turned a blind eye to an abusive manager, of whom he was alerted by a responsible manager from the beginning, “because she gets the cases out.”
    He seemingly failed to consider that a non-abusive manager could be just as effective.
    I know from my own personal effort — which I hardly think is unique — that I am more motivated
    by a decent manager than one who is considered unfailing troublesome by both management and staff because of her heavy-handed, even abusive (including dishonest) tactics.
    Two supervisors who worked for this problem manager recently left the staff because
    they could no longer tolerate her abuse of power. In addition, this manager has left
    a long legacy of forcing out long-term dedicated employees not to mention other talented
    employees who voluntarily left because they no longer wanted to work for her.
    Recently, there was a opening for a supervisory position under her for which no qualified employees
    applied — her reputation is well known and no one wants to work for her — even
    though the opportunities for advancement are few and far between. In the meantime,
    by all appearances, the top boss continues to turn a blind eye. He has even allowed her to turn
    the interview process for promotion into a toxic experience in which highly qualified
    employees are grilled almost exclusively on any aspect of their career that appears less
    than perfect — and apparently considered unacceptable if they ever filed a grievance through
    the Union no matter how legitimate.
    . The staff and agency has paid a great price — institutionally and
    personally — because of this toxic manager. I personally ,beside being forced
    to involuntarily retire after 33 years, developed depression and PTSD gratis this manager.
    When management, including the top boss, was presented with medical documentation
    of this, absolutely no response was forthcoming other than continue to pursue ejecting
    me. In short, first management made be verifiably ill and then they forced me out.
    I was not alone in developing health issues.
    At what point do top bosses take responsibility for the toxic work environment
    they have allowed to develop right under their feet — to the extent of causing
    medical problems — just because a manager
    “gets the cases out” as if that was a skill unique to abusive managers?

  2. “The irony isn’t lost on me, given the iPhone, iPad, and MacBook I use just about every day.” Would we be better off if Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Susan B. Anthony, Lalala Youusafzai, Mahatma Ghandi and many more like them hadn’t persisted? I think not. Would the world be worse off if the iPhone, iPad and Mackbook had never started rolling off the assembly lines. I think not. I’m open to suggestions if someone can give me insight into how much safer the world is today because of visionary money makers like Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk.

  3. A piece of the total picture is helping these types of leaders recognize their behaviors are dysfunctional. Easier said than done, but I have no doubt that at least some situations would change for the better if leaders were supported in ‘letting go’ of certain aspects of their jobs about which they do not do well. Let’s get rid of the idea that the top leader is expected to do all thing well. Let’s support the idea that they are expected to get support – that to do otherwise is NOT effective leadership. No one – gifted or not – does all things well.

      • Some type of alerting protocol would be great and then, hopefully, resources would be in place that can actually help the bosses make the changes needed. This would be a radical way of doing things in most of our workplaces.

  4. It’s not just Steve Jobs is it? Apple today is still as awful as Steve Jobs was. They use child labor and what about all the other companies that do the same? Does it have to occur in the Western world to be abuse? Until we can show respect for all people and companies decide that they don’t have to exhibit disgusting greed we won’t be able to turn any of this around. Time for us to all wake up to the fact that power and greed fuels this type of behavior. Let’s all look down on these so called successful ‘leaders’ if that is what you can call them.

  5. Pingback: Workplace Issues | July 2015 ~ Focus on Bullying - andrea-rennick.preview56.rmkr.net

  6. Pingback: Workplace Issues | July 2015 ~ Focus on Bullying - Michel Hobson's Workplace Training -

  7. Pingback: Workplace Issues | July 2015 ~ Focus on Bullying | Michel Hobson's Workplace Training Blog

  8. Pingback: Workplace Bullying and Ethical Leadership « The WORD Blog

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