The scientific explanation for why so many CEOs act like jerks

Image: Reuters/Shu Zhang
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

In the aftermath of Travis Kalanick’s ouster as CEO of ride-sharing behemoth Uber, Silicon Valley is grappling with an age-old management question. Namely: Do business leaders need to be nice?

In the opinion of former US attorney general Eric Holder, the answer would seem to be yes. After Holder was hired to investigate sexual harassment allegations at the company, he diagnosed the underlying issues responsible for the scandals that have slammed the brakes on Uber’s potential. Holder suggests that Uber’s problems can, in part, be traced directly back to its 14 cultural values, which praise the virtues of “Toe-Stepping” and “Principled Confrontation.”

In light of the company’s recent scandals, those values might seem a tad harsh—maybe even malicious. But those same values also really do lead to success for a lot of truly innovative companies and the leaders who run them. What the Uber debacle has shown us is not that good leaders must be “nice”—only that they must be respectful. There is a difference.

Personality research shows that people score high on the personality trait of “agreeableness”—those kind souls who go out of their way to not step on people’s toes and shy away from directly confronting other people—are less likely to challenge existing rules and violate expectations about how things are supposed to be done. Given this resistance to conflict, it’s not surprising that agreeable people are also less likely to successfully bring creative innovations to life. And so turning Uber’s cultural values into a list of rules befitting of a kindergarten classroom might protect the company legally, but kill them strategically. Kalanick’s earlier success at Uber proves that prickly people can actually be great entrepreneurs.

At the same time, too many entrepreneurs and innovators continue to fall prey to the Steve Jobs myth—the idea that some people are just so brilliant that they don’t need to concern themselves with others’ feelings, and that innovation and rudeness necessarily go hand in hand. The fall of Uber’s leadership team is evidence that the ghost of Steve Jobs is still haunting many start-ups.  Like all pervasive myths, there is a grain of truth to it. Innovators and entrepreneurs do need to be willing to swim against the current. If they care too much about what other people think—and by extension, what other people feel—they will have a harder time firing employees who aren’t good at their jobs, or giving tough feedback to an engineering team that’s on the wrong track.

But what is often overlooked is the fact that the qualities of a great leader and a great innovator are not necessarily the same. It’s okay for innovators to be jerks. But it’s almost impossible for a CEO to act callously toward people and still be an effective, transformational leader.

The best transformational leaders have high levels of agreeableness. It is what helps CEOs and other leaders build cohesive teams. And even though the personality trait of agreeableness has a negative relationship with successful innovation, the link is a weak one. There are plenty of successful innovators who aren’t jerks. Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn, and Shantanu Narayen of Adobe all have an impressive 95% or higher approval rating from their company’s employees.

There are basically four different kinds of leader in an innovative company. Some leaders are brilliant innovators, but not particularly good at inspiring their colleagues. Others are effective leaders, but not especially innovative in their thinking or practices. Some leaders (the worst ones) are both poor managers and unimaginative thinkers. And some people are innovative leaders who both excel at innovative thinking and inspire people to follow their lead.

Of course, charismatic, innovative leaders are ideal CEOs. But they are also a rare species. And so companies wind up with leaders from all four categories, including a fair number of brilliant assholes.

It’s unrealistic to expect that the Uber debacle will inspire a wave of “niceness” throughout Silicon Valley’s high-flying startups. So long as a leader is producing quality work, they are unlikely to be reprimanded—let alone get fired. Uber’s board and investors didn’t seem to care that much about its rude and misogynistic culture, or Kalanick’s brash management style, until the company’s performance began to plummet. At the end of the day, the bottom line is still the key measure of quality and performance in virtually all businesses.

What Uber’s mess has done, however, is highlight the distinction between being “nice” and being respectful. Insulting someone’s ideas or even their intelligence is not a nice thing to do. But it’s very different from, say, openly propositioning a subordinate for sex, or allowing one’s employees to do the same. Innovators sometimes need to step on people’s toes, but they don’t get to violate other people’s rights.

In the end, Kalanick’s firing is unlikely to cause a revolution in the culture of management in Silicon Valley or anywhere else. But leaders would be wise to learn from his downfall, and begin thinking deeply about the difference between being outspoken and being out of line.