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The Real Reason Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos Became World-Changing Leaders

The leadership theory that annihilates conventional wisdom and four people who embody it.

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BY Sunny Bonnell - 23 Jan 2018

The Real Reason Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos Became World-Changing Leaders

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

To quote Tears for Fears, everybody wants to rule the world. More to the point, everybody wants to know how the world-changers do it. How did people like Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos blow past Harvard MBAs and MIT geniuses to build 11-figure empires and rewrite the rules? The hunger to find that magical incantation has launched at least a thousand business books.

When new clients come to my company, Motto, they usually tell the same story. For years, they've read books by writers like John Maxwell and Patrick Lencioni, hoping to find the secret to leading like the icons they admire, but winding up frustrated. Why?

One day, I was dealing with an impossible client--obsessive, bizarre, egotistical, brilliant--when the answer sucker-punched me. This CEO wasn't great despite the traits that made him a pain, but because of them.

Leadership books and MBA programs praise qualities like mindfulness, empathy and grit. They're important, but they're also conservative, predictable and mainstream, while leaders like Bezos and Zuckerberg aren't. Boundary-shattering leaders are always neurotic. Dictatorial. Irrational. Temperamental. Maddening. Crazy.

Not convinced? Well, historically there has always been a fine line between genius and madman. Think about why the leaders I've mentioned rose to such heights. It's not because they thought inside the box.

They've ripped the box apart with their teeth and spit the shards all over incremental progress. They've favored dangerous leaps that looked insane--until they succeeded.

You don't defy decades-old business models or design products the rest of the world sees as science fiction by being conventional. You do it by being obstinate, visionary, and maybe even downright arrogant.

Here are just four examples out of many:

  • Karl Lagerfeld. The iconic designer takes eccentricity to a new level--insisting he has no past and rejecting psychoanalysis because it tethers one to the mundane. It's impossible not to be captivated by a man who once said, "I am short-sighted. I choose not to put on the glasses of reality.''

  • Nicola Tesla. The car company's namesake played a major role in the discovery of radio, robotics, computers and alternating current. He was also an obsessive-compulsive and germophobe fixated on the number 3.

  • James Cameron. Cameron has changed cinema, but the flip side of this greatness is a monstrous ego. He's abused actors until they break down and told his then-wife, actress Linda Hamilton, "Anybody can be a father or a husband. There are only five people in the world who can do what I do, and I'm going for that." Yikes.

  • Sherlock Holmes. I know he's fictional, but is there a better example of maddening qualities combining to make genius? Conan Doyle's detective was arrogant, superior, impatient, and abrupt, but he was also a deductive prodigy.

Correlation or Causation?

If you disagree, I get it. It's hard to tease out what makes someone a great leader. Was Steve Jobs a superstar because he was an obsessive tyrant or was he a superstar who happened to be a hyper-controlling perfectionist? Does arrogance make someone a generational leader or is it just a sign that you might be one? I come down on the side of causation. In fact, I'm exploring this theory right now in a new leadership book coming out by HarperOne in early 2019.

When leaders like Musk or Hsieh lean into their irksome personality traits, they're capable of extremes of originality and productivity that dust their peers. An obsessive CEO will push herself and her team to work inhuman hours in the pursuit of excellence. A narcissistic inventor will keep developing his idea--even when competitors scoff--because he knows best.

Such people aren't trying to be offensive or strange. They're just more interested in servicing their visions than in playing well with others.

Consider Jobs. In 2006, when the iPhone was being developed, he called Ralph de la Vega, COO of Cingular Wireless (AT&T's mobile division) to ask for advice on designing cell phones. De la Vega sent Jobs the info, but Jobs called back, angry. The document included 100 pages on how to build a physical keyboard--and Jobs despised keyboards. De la Vega quickly said, "Steve, forget those 100 pages. Those don't apply to you."

Think about that. It's 2006. You're just Steve Jobs, not a god yet. You're dealing with a top executive at the world's biggest telecom company--and you push back. Hard. Who does that? Someone arrogant enough to disdain compromise, who knows his way is right.

There are downsides to embracing these qualities. There's a fine line between a hot-tempered genius and an abusive SOB. Great leaders walk it daily. But that tension makes them world changers.

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