Why Can Some Leaders Be A$$holes?


Why are some leaders (Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and others) such a$$holes to their workers?

And how can they get away with it?

Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and others who fit the intelligent fanatic mold could, at times, be considered “heartless monsters”. They possess(ed) hysterical intolerance for those that did not share their vision, that were “out of tune”. Such explosions can be confused with lack of integrity. It’s not.

How can one get away with temper tantrums, belittling others, and still possess integrity?

Rare Abilities

A few intelligent fanatics are born with rare mental capacities. They can see in clear detail the full picture, fully born. Steve Jobs had a clear picture, in his head, how to create products that pleased the masses, interfaces that were uber friendly, and marketing messages that were enticing and engaging. It came naturally to him.

At the same time these rare individuals have zero tolerance for people that don’t fully embrace their vision. They are subject to hysterical intolerance, belittling and temper tantrums. Put simply, these leaders can be a$$holes.

For example, Steve Jobs’s agency partners reported that if they showed Steve a campaign, or a design for a product, and if he didn’t like it - he’d throw the papers across the room and make them work all night.

Or when VLSI Technology, a chip company, was having trouble delivering enough chips on time, Jobs stormed into a meeting and started shouting that they were ‘fu%$ing dickless a$$holes.’

Jeff Bezos’ outbursts with employees are referred to as “nutters”. Bezos often tells employees who are “out of tune”, “Why are you ruining my life?”, “If I hear that idea again, I’m going to have to kill myself,” and “We are going to have to supply some human intelligence to this problem.”

But why did those fanatics treat others poorly at times?

A Perfect Analogy

It is as if some intelligent fanatics possess “perfect pitch”.

Perfect pitch is a rare ability for an individual to hear a pitch - any sound - and identify exactly what frequency or note it is without a reference. Example, someone with perfect pitch hears a lawn mower and immediately can translate the mower’s pitch to a C#. (I just picked a note, I have no clue what most lawn mower’s engine frequencies are)

Now when such a person hears a live band playing music it can be extremely painful if the band - or any member of the band - is only slightly out of tune. To most mortals, we can’t even hear the difference. So to the individual with perfect pitch, listening to minutley out of tune music (or songs in different keys from the original) is like listening to a blackboard being scratched. It’s not how they hear it so clearly in their head.

For instance, Paul Dateh has perfect pitch. He described how out of tune music “bothers” him. What is it like riding in the car with Paul and listening to music on the radio? Tim Hoot, Paul’s bassist, recounted:

After about a minute he said, ‘I can’t listen to this’. Turns it (the radio) off. Everybody in the car - we were driving off to some gig or something like that - was saying ‘What is that?’ He told us how it (the song) was sharp and his ears couldn’t take it. Because it was so wrong than what it should be.

Fanatics with “perfect pitch” are the same. They are bothered when others are “out of tune” with what is so clear in their head. Their hysterical intolerance for those “out of tune” can lead to temper tantrums, as discussed earlier.

But how do those with “perfect pitch” get away with it?

Bono - the singer of U2, one of the most successful bands ever - describes this phenomenon as the “pretty girl” syndrome. In Bono on Bono he said:

…it’s ’pretty girl’ syndrome. Being gifted is like being born beautiful. You don’t have to work a day in a year in your life for it. You were born with it. In one sense, it’s like blue blood, money, gift, or beauty. They are things that should make you the most humble, because they are not things you have earned. They are things you were given. Yet, it is my experience that they make people the most spoiled.”

Now doesn’t that spoiled, “pretty girl” syndrome describe Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos and other masters, who treated others who were “out of tune” poorly, so well? Like being born with beauty, they were born with “the gift” and can’t stand others who weren’t born with brains that could immediately see the whole picture.

So when the rare fanatic throws a tantrum, like a pretty girl they can get away with it. The Halo Effect is Actually Good For Them. Just as beauty outweighs flaws, a fanatic’s honesty, vision, track record for winning and other positive characteristics outweigh the flaws.

So back to Steve Jobs.

A colleague of Jobs said, “There were people who were so loyal to Steve they would walk through walls for him. He developed around him the tightest, most loyal, most integrated team in Silicon Valley.” Jobs’s “reality distortion field”, vision, integrity, high standards and track record of winning helped Jobs get his teams to go all-in.

So while we might hear of the a$$hole eruptions on workers, these leaders truly did care for their teams.

In an interview with Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs claimed that his greatest product was Apple the organization. “I [Walter Isaacson] once asked Steve Jobs, you know, what product are you proudest of? And I thought he might say the iPod or the iPhone or the iPad, whatever, the Mac. He said, ‘You know, making a product is hard but making a team that can continually make products is even harder. The product I’m most proud of is Apple and the team I built at Apple.’”

But what about the non-a$$hole leaders?

Without Perfect Pitch

Then you see individuals who weren’t born with this “perfect pitch”. Those who had to work, work and work to reach mastery - this is how Bono described them:

And the people who work the hardest, and who have overcome the most obstacles in their life, who have a reason to be arrogant, who have reason to beat their breasts are the most humble… So to make it through success and still have manners, to still have curiosity, intellectual curiosity, to still have some grace, to keep your dignity, that is really… rare.

Intelligent fanatics without the rare “perfect pitch” overcome weaknesses. They grind it out. Through deliberate, proper preparation - those 10s of thousands of hours - they rise to the level of a master.

Let me get this straight, those without “perfect pitch” can never work to get it, no matter how much practice they put in. But like many great musicians, mortal fanatics can build “relative pitch” - the ability to name a note with a reference note, and create beautiful music.

In music, perfect pitch helps, but is not necessary. Bono doesn’t have it and he leads one of the most successful bands today!!! CNN reported in 2014 he was worth more than $590 million. He’s overcome his weaknesses by relying on his band members.


U2 acts more like a team.

“When we’re making the records,” Bono has said, “it always feels a bit like we’re drowning, and you do wonder if there’s an easier way. But we seem to need some chaos to bring us together.”

But it works, in part because the constant verbal and musical communication and discussions that are required to stay on the same wavelength help maintain the team.”

Likewise, U2 band members are incentivized to act as a team. Royalties are divided equally no matter each person’s relative contribution to a song. Most bands allocate royalties based on each person’s contribution, which can create problems as band members compete to get their songs on albums or to increase their relative contribution to each song. Hence the joke, “What was the last thing the drummer said before he was fired? ‘Hey guys, I’ve written a song!’”

Additionally, U2 divides songwriting credit equally too (though not lyrics, which are mostly written by Bono). When songwriting credits are allocated equally, everyone in the band feels valued for their hard work and the interests of the songs prevail over personal agendas. Everything is subservient to the interests of the group. Everything is about the group.

Those fanatics who work for their skills are often humble and have grace. They are less likely to treat others with tantrums. The absolute rarity is the “pretty girl” with “perfect pitch” who has grace. That is why Warren Buffett is one of the most rare human beings in business and investing, probably ever. Not only does Warren have “perfect pitch” but like pianist Derek Paravicini - he can store and recall an almost unlimited amount of data.

And while Warren still has weaknesses, he doesn’t let his “perfect pitch” turn into hysterical intolerance and tantrums that belittle others.


I’m sure many have met moderate to ugly “individuals” with “pretty girl” syndrome, right? How far do these people get? Not very far.

For us mere mortals who aren’t born with “perfect pitch”, you won’t go far with “pretty girl” syndrome. We don’t have the goods to back it up.

Even if you put in the proper deliberate practice you can’t go around mindlessly mimicking the flaws of others. You’ll zero yourself out real quick.

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