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.