The Golden Boys of Mean

We live in a country obsessed with entrepreneurs. From tech juggernauts like Steve Jobs, to outrageous, misbehaving CEOs like Dov Charney, to social media golden boys like Mark Zuckerberg, we can’t get enough of them. There’s nothing more quintessentially American than someone who finds success by flouting convention and forging their own path.

The fascination with these self-made, charismatic iconoclasts is one I share. In fact, I’ve made a study of entrepreneurs over the last several decades. In the 1990s, my position as a professor of management at The New School, a New York–based university with a reputation for being innovative, gave me a rare inner look into the then booming start-up world. Focusing on CEO leadership development, I helped entrepreneurial companies build high-functioning executive teams, develop strategies for growth and manage the big changes within their organizations. It was exciting work, and all the while I was drawing on my consulting experience to advance the scholarship on the nature of leadership and entrepreneurship.

When Walter Isaacson published his biography of Steve Jobs in 2011, the media was abuzz about the book’s most prominent takeaway: Jobs had been a titanic jerk. Isaacson’s book is filled with outrageous tales of Job’s tantrums, stony coldness, double-crosses, and controlling behavior. I, however, wasn’t surprised by any of it. In fact, I knew that some of the worst stories about Jobs didn’t even make it into Isaacson’s book. More broadly, I wasn’t shocked that a top entrepreneur could behave so badly because I’d quietly been collecting my own stories about guys like Jobs for years. His story was but the tip of a toxic iceberg when it came to twisted people in high places. By the time the Isaacson book came out, I was already in deep, having spent three years exploring the question of what makes these mean men tick.

You see, as I worked in the start-up world I spoke with scores of those who worked for and lived with entrepreneurs—their advisors, investors, spouses, and children—and chillingly similar themes began to emerge. In an alarming number of cases, I heard about an obsessive need for control among many of these self-made men, a need that made them unable to delegate and, much worse, made them micromanage everyone in their world. Deviate from their directives and they’d explode in anger. I heard about their distrust and paranoia even as they entered into high-stakes-partnerships or gave lip service to empowering others and their desire to build strong teams. There were tales of out-of-control arrogance and dismissive, condescending behavior from entrepreneurs who believed so deeply in their own worldview and talents that they viewed others not as people, but as mere tools to achieve their ends. I heard about impulsive decisions and extreme risk-taking, often with disastrous results, as young entrepreneurs convinced of their own infallible genius followed their “gut” and refused to listen to advice or counter arguments.

Our society lauds the entrepreneur, but it quickly became clear to me that many of the all-American, trailblazing heroes we hold so dear have developed a serious dark side. So what’s going on here? Why do so many of these charismatic leaders who seem to have it together regularly turn on those closest to them? What drives these behaviors? What makes them so mean?

I’ve seen the enormous damage mean entrepreneurs can inflict on both people and organizations with behavior both appalling and wrong. And it doesn’t have to be this way. Contrary to popular wisdom, mean doesn’t “get results” or “work.” In fact, a growing body of compelling academic research shows just the opposite: leaders who support and empower people, who act with civility, and who inspire trust, get the best results over the long term.

My purpose in studying entrepreneurs isn’t to denigrate them, but to question why the bad ones often remain unchecked for so long and to examine why we allow some of our most treasured moguls to treat others so badly. The fact is, a discomforting number of America’s most visible entrepreneurs share characteristics of a dark personality disorder that compels them to behave badly, even as it drives them to create and excel.

So how did we get to this place where we laud men who behave so abominably? When is enough enough, and how do we combat the general culture of mean?