Why Bad Guys Win

“He is a dreadful manager,” said a worker. “I have found it impossible to work for him . . . Very often, when told a new idea, he will immediately attack it and say it is worthless or even stupid, and tell you that it was a waste of time to work on it. This alone is bad management, but if the idea is a good one he will soon be telling people about it as though it was his own.”

Few people would like the idea of working for such a boss. And even fewer would expect a boss like that to be held up as one of the best business leaders of all time. But remarkably, the quote describes none other than Steve Jobs, the founder of one of the most successful companies in history. (The quote comes from Jef Raskin, who led the design of the original Mac computer.) Apple has just become the first trillion-dollar company in US history, even though it has not released a blockbuster product since Jobs’s death in 2011.

The Jobs paradox kept many commentators puzzled, in part because it fits with a familiar archetype: the exacting, visionary perfectionist who is turbocharged by the unstoppable force of a gargantuan ego. With his dramatic product unveilings, his stark uniform of black turtlenecks, and his megalomaniac mission, Jobs seemed to present a model for ambitious leaders to follow. It has even been said that he was capable of creating a cultish reality distortion when he talked about Apple products, convincing employees, investors, and suppliers that anything was possible. As we do with many tormented artists, we tend to see Jobs’s personality quirks as inseparable from his genius.

In reality, few leaders succeed when they are as difficult and badly behaved as Jobs was. A self-made billionaire with a flawed personality succeeds despite his or her character defects, not because of them. What makes the Jobs story a true exception is not only that he was hired back as Apple CEO—after being fired from his own company—but also that he achieved such extraordinary levels of success. As much as his fans would like to attribute Jobs’s unrivaled success to his eccentric and uncompromising personality, many narcissistic leaders have no problem distorting reality or coming up with colossal ideas or megalomaniac visions for the future. Their main problem is that they are not Steve Jobs, and without his talents, their delusions of grandeur will never become the next Apple.

We have, alas, a tendency to generalize from unrepresentative examples, mostly because they are so memorable. Einstein’s lack of brilliance in his early years at school does not imply that bad grades will help you win a Nobel prize. Likewise, John Coltrane’s musical genius did not result from his heroin addiction—his talent somehow managed to survive the heroin. The only advantage of a difficult personality is that it may make a person unfit for traditional employment and can consequently propel them to launch their own business out of sheer necessity, if not revenge. But there is a big gap between being a mega-successful entrepreneur and being unemployable, and that gap is a function of talent rather than personality.

Many obnoxious leaders manage not only to remain employed but also to attain impressive levels of personal career success, despite their toxic personalities. To this end, this chapter explores the relationship between leadership and the two best-known examples of such toxic traits: narcissism and psychopathy. Looking at these two character traits will allow us to examine problematic leadership in more depth than we could by just talking about difficult bosses in general. The chapter will also present an evidence-based framework for making sense of the problem.

To be sure, there is much more to the dark side of leadership than narcissism and psychopathy. So why focus on these two traits? We’ll do so for a few reasons. Not only are both traits more common among leaders than in the normal population, but they also perfectly illustrate the ambivalence of the dark side. These counterproductive and undesirable tendencies coexist with—and are largely masked by—seemingly attractive traits. Narcissism and psychopathy are so fascinating because they can simultaneously help individual leaders advance their careers while hurting the people and organizations they lead. These leaders are not always incompetent, but they are generally destructive, particularly in the long run.

Various studies put the rate of psychopathy in senior management roles at anywhere between 4 percent and 20 percent. Even at the lower end, that’s four times higher than the general population rate, which is just 1 percent. Likewise, the prevalence of narcissism in the overall population is only 1 percent, yet studies suggest that among CEOs, the figure is 5 percent.

Both traits are also more likely to be found in men than in women. For instance, the rate of clinical narcissism is almost 40 percent higher in men than in women—perhaps helping to account for men’s higher rates of overconfidence, as discussed in chapter 2. Meanwhile psychopathy occurs ithree times more often in men than it does in women.

Ref: Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?

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