Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs is the poster boy of arrogance and rudeness. Corporate lore is filled with stories about how effective Jobs was despite being a self-absorbed, overbearing jerk. There is just enough truth in the legend to give credence to leaders who believe their stellar performance unfetters them from treating their followers with basic decency.
But when you dig into the trajectory of Jobs’ career, it becomes clear that the Apple founder paid dearly for his initial arrogance. His storied success with the iPod, iPhone and iPad came only after he changed his bullying ways and embraced a more inclusive leadership style. It should be remembered that Jobs was unceremoniously ejected from Apple in 1985. Jobs then spent a decade in the wilderness experiencing setback after setback at NeXT, the high-end computer company he founded. By the time he landed at Pixar, his management style had changed.
Jobs’ biographer Walter Issacson makes it clear that in the course of his ups and (mostly) downs at NeXT, Jobs accepted that his perfectionism and desire to work with the best could coexist with a more empathic leadership style. Issacson observes that Jobs’ legendary success emerged only after he repudiated the excesses of his bullying and impatient treatment of subordinates that plagued his early years. The biography demonstrates that at Pixar, Jobs transformed himself into a better listener, a more patient and inclusive team player, and most of all a peer in the creative process. This is the Jobs that stewarded his amazing track record once he rejoined Apple.
The takeaway, suggests Stanford professor Bob Sutton, is that the best leaders figure out how to fix their teams and organizations by fixing themselves. Sutton is an expert on jerk bosses. To write his latest book, “The Asshole Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt,” Sutton studied hundreds of bullying bosses across C-Suites and boardrooms and their targets. Sutton’s five-point action plan for board members who strive to treat others with dignity and respect starts with the admonition to look in the mirror.
1. Beware of contagion. Organizational researchers have demonstrated that rudeness spreads like a virus. Research subjects who encountered even one rude partner in simulated negotiations were prone to become carriers and to be rude during their next negotiation, even with a different partner. If you are modeling impatience and casual arrogance, you can be assured that others on the board will start behaving like that, too. And since tone is set from the top, the executives will start emulating such behavior.
2. Check your privilege. Wielding power over others increases the risk you’ll start treating others like a means to an end. “Regardless of how kindly, cooperatively and empathetically you’ve acted in the past, power can cause you to have less empathy, to exploit others more, to focus on your own needs, to be rude and disrespectful, and to act like the rules don’t apply to you,” Sutton says. One response is to practice humility, for example by letting others take the credit. Consider dismantling some of the barriers between you and less powerful people in the organization.
3. Understand the risks of overload. The unrelenting rush of business can turn even civilized leaders into jerks. The imperatives of managing a 24/7 global business can sometimes be used as an argument for why civility and decency to colleagues and partners are luxuries that can be dispensed with. A board member’s workload can be daunting, especially if they serve on multiple boards. But the answer can’t be cutting corners on basic decency. Nor does the answer lie in multitasking during meetings to answer emails and texts. Some boards now require members to relinquish smartphones for “safekeeping” during meetings.
4. When you are called a jerk, believe it. It takes a lot of guts for someone to confront a powerful person. While it’s easier to dismiss such accusations, it is imperative that leaders listen closely to the information. The worst thing to do is to blame the messenger. Better, cultivate the truth-tellers on the team who have the courage to speak up. Ideally, you will get some insights into how your behavior and choice of words are being perceived by the team. This is the time to introduce yourself to the leader your colleagues experience.
5. Then apologize and change. Teams don’t expect you to be perfect; they expect you to be accountable. When you do something wrong, a well-crafted apology can repair the relationship and sometimes even make the relationship stronger than it was before. But only if the apology is offered without a hint of defensiveness or excuse. That means taking unalloyed responsibility for your behavior, a clear use of the phrase “I apologize” or “I am sorry,” and a commitment to learn from the experience and change. This is not a chore you can delegate.