The New New Boss

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Volume 44. No. 1. January-February, 2001.

The psychological landscape of the technology world has changed dramatically since the 70s when I first interviewed managers at companies like HP, IBM, Intel, TI and DuPont. (The Gamesman, Simon & Schuster, 1977.) I was able to place people creating new technology pretty neatly into three psychological boxes.

The craftsmen were the conscientious doers. They were hardworking, conservative in dress and behavior and had no trouble fitting into traditional hierarchies of masters and apprentices. Then there were the company men, most likely to become middle managers. They facilitated communication between these hierarchies and from the top of the company. The new leaders were the gamesmen, hard driving and highly competitive careerists who knew how to motivate the others and win at the game of business.

Today's Leaders

There were two kinds of people that did not fit so well in the corporate culture of that time, but are now leading players. Most of the programmers fell into one type: people who worked at odd hours of the day and night and seemed to inhabit their own inner worlds. They could usually be recognized by their casual dress and shaggy hair.

I called the second type “jungle fighters ” because they saw work not as a game, but a contest for survival, more like war. The smartest of them were extremely entrepreneurial innovators. I now call them “ visionary entrepreneurs. ” They are people like Jim Clark, brilliantly described by Michael Lewis in The New New Thing (W.W. Norton, 2000).

The jungle fighters I studied had a few loyal followers, and they saw people in terms of friends or enemies. They had big visions not only of new products but large systemic solutions that could produce new businesses. In the business environment of the early 70s, both the programmers and jungle fighters came across as too self centered and independent for large companies. But the Internet and biotechnology has revolutionized this environment. While the company men have almost disappeared, a kind of social Darwinism has selected the jungle fighters as the new technology business leaders.

The programmers were a type I came to term self-developers (Why Work? Second edition, Miles River Press, 1995). They are the independent free agents who want challenging work that does not interfere too much with their quality of life. There were relatively few of them in the '70s, but their number has grown with the technology and social changes forming this generation. They are more likely to come from non-traditional families, either two wage earners or a single parent. And they have grown up in an era where loyalty has become rarer in both companies and families. A company will get the most out of them when it provides opportunities for continual learning from colleagues, customers and competitors, responds to their ideas, rewards teamwork, explains why their work is important, and makes them owners through stock options. Of course they are especially motivated when they believe they are part of a great enterprise that might make them rich and famous.

The Visionary Entrepreneur

Jim Clark, a former Stanford professor and a visionary entrepreneur, has created three businesses with market values of over a billion dollars. They are Silicon Graphics, Netscape and Healtheon (now WebMD.com). In the process, he also led Silicon Graphics to develop interactive television for Time Warner, a $380 million dollar venture that was never commercialized.

Lewis shows us how Clark mesmerizes venture capitalists and attracts the best programmers to his projects. And in fact, both groups have made millions by believing in Clark, even when his visions were sketchy.

Most of the advice given managers today is all about submerging one's ego, listening to others and facilitating consensus. Successful managers are advised to develop empathy and other aspects of “emotional intelligence.” This is good advice for operational and project managers who are likely craftsmen or gamesmen.

But, Clark doesn’t listen much to others. His creative dialogue is with himself, and he wants total control. As a manager, he sows discord, not harmony. However, once he has sold his vision, and recruited the best programmers in Silicon Valley, he hands over the implementation to someone who is good at management. Clark’s version of emotional intelligence is a kind of street smarts. He has a keen sense of the kind of people who will help him succeed, and he's not interested in people he can’t use.

Another visionary entrepreneur out of the same mold is Larry Ellison, founder of Oracle. Ellison has stayed as CEO of his company but until recently had a COO sidekick, Ray Lane, to manage the business.

When Lane left Oracle last summer, he said that he had kept the salespeople honest, that Ellison encouraged them to exaggerate what they could give to customers. He was leaving because Ellison was becoming too controlling and surrounding himself with yes-men.

Steve Jobs, founder and CEO of Apple Computer is another such visionary. No one doubts that his return to Apple and development of the Mac brought the company back from a precipice. However, in The Second Coming of Steve Jobs (Broadway Books, 2000), Alan Deutschman describes Jobs as vain, petulant, cruel, yet irresistibly seductive even to those he abuses most.

Narcissistic Personalities

Visionaries like Clark, Ellison and Jobs have the kind of personality that Sigmund Freud termed narcissistic. ”People of this type impress others as being ‘ personalities,’“ he wrote, describing one of the psychological types that clearly fell in the range of normality. ”They are especially suited to act as a support for others, to take on the role of leaders, and to give a fresh stimulus to cultural development or damage the established state of affairs.“

This is the positive side of productive narcissists, the ones who are able to get others to help them make their visions real. The negative side is their, intense competitiveness, exploitiveness and lack of respect, (see my article, “Narcissistic Leaders: The Incredible Pros, the Inevitable Cons”, Harvard Business Review, January-February, 2000).

Given the revolution still taking place in both infocom and biotechnology, especially genomics, I believe productive narcissists will play an increasingly important role in the economy. I see this period as similar to the business environment 100 years ago when the discoveries and developments in electricity, steel, railroads, and the internal combustion engine produced visionary entrepreneurs like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie — men who built large companies and transformed work.

Success and Failure

However, there is no guarantee that the new visionaries will succeed. Some creative narcissists fail because their subordinates become fed up, like Ray Lane. Others will overextend themselves or bet too much on their visions, as Steve Jobs may have done with his PowerMac G4 cube. Here are some lessons:

  • The productive narcissists most likely to succeed as innovators recognize their limitations. They find sidekicks ‹ craftsmen or gamesmen ‹ to manage the organization. Andy Grove and Craig Barrett present a good case. The ones like Jobs who both try to be both visionaries and managers run the risk of driving away some of their best people, if they don’t learn how to control the negative side of their behavior.

  • These visionaries typically don’t like to examine their motives or analyze their behavior. However, in my experience working with this type of leader, those who do get psychoanalytic coaching can benefit from it. They can understand their thin skinned explosiveness, and may even become able to laugh at their grandiosity. They also learn that they need sidekicks with complementary capabilities.

  • Why would anyone want to work for a narcissist? In the case of Jim Clark, there is the promise of wealth and he'll leave you pretty much alone. In the case of Jobs, Matt Berger of Upside finds many similarities between Jobs’ company and a quasi-religious cult. Deutschman has said, “ You have very young, high-achieving people who are also insecure about their contributions, who are getting exhausted through marathon work sessions in windowless cubicles, who end up turning for direction from these very self-confident leaders. ”

  • If you do work for a narcissistic visionary, be prepared for non-stop planning sessions and demands for your time any hour of the day or night. Don’t expect any sympathy about your problems. You’d be well advised to negotiate a clear contract about mutual expectations. Good Luck!

  • Finally, do you have to be a productive narcissist in order to be an innovator? Gary Hamel offers a step-by-step guide to being a “revolutionary” at work (Leading the Revolution, Harvard Business School, 2000). The question is: does this require a narcissistic personality? As long as innovation involves making use of the internet or developing and promoting a new product, other types may be able to succeed in gaining allies to promote innovation. With some good results, Russell Ackoff and I have been leading workshops of executives at the Canadian Pacific Corporation with the goal of developing entrepreneurial systems thinking. (see “Creating Network Competence,” Research Technology Management, May-June 2000.) However, if it’s a matter of a vision that will create a revolutionary new business, only a productive narcissist will be able to project the conviction and have the charisma to persuade people to follow into the unknown.

Once we understand the personalities of the key players in creating new technology, it becomes clear that the human side makes a huge difference to success or failure. The entrepreneurial visionaries and the other types—craftsmen and gamesmen—can benefit big time by education about personality and its influence on business strategy, culture, and leadership.



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