On Excellence: Tough talk breaks barriers

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The Independent Online
THOSE who run marathons call it 'hitting the wall'. You get to a point where you can't go on. But you do. And, miraculously, you come out the other side and finish the race.

The truth is, damn little of merit, profession or hobby, is accomplished without running through a wall or two.

I got to thinking about that while reading Fortune's recent cover story 'America's Toughest Bosses'. Some turn 'beet red'. Others 'scream'. Some engage in 'sadistic' behaviour and use tactics that amount to 'psychological oppression'. While I hardly countenance 'Jack attacks', the tirades by Jack Connors, head of the advertising agency Hill Holliday, I also don't believe the best bosses are sweethearts.

The best leaders take their firms and followers to places they have never been before - and, more important, places they never imagined they would reach. The chief's voice may be subdued or, more likely, strident at times. The reason, Fortune acknowledges, is the incredible demands these honchos place, first and foremost, on themselves.

Take Steve Jobs, one of Fortune's seven nasties. I've seen him, in his days at Apple, lose his cool on occasion. Not a particularly pretty sight.

Yet I was thoroughly taken aback by one of Jobs's 'excesses', as chronicled by Fortune. A subordinate at Next Computer was showing Jobs shades of green for the company's logo. More precisely, she produced some 37 shades of green before coming upon one that pleased the master. 'Oh, come on,' the minion recalled thinking. 'Green is green.' Oh no it isn't.

Almost every step Jobs took at Apple (and Next) broke the mould; moreover, it defied industry tradition as set by the all-powerful, undisputed master of the universe - IBM. To say Jobs was fighting an uphill battle is to suggest that Charles Lindbergh's historic flight across the Atlantic was merely 'challenging'.

Jobs was reviled and ridiculed. Yet he reinvented the world in a way that makes Bill Gates's more recent contributions at Microsoft seem meagre by comparison.

How did Jobs do it? By worrying about which shade of green was 'right'. He triumphed with the Apple II. Then the Macintosh.

It was precisely his stratospheric standards ('insanely great' was a common Jobsism in days past) that allowed him and his enormously spirited teams to push past the existing frontiers time and time again. No sir. Green is not green. Not if you are reinventing the planet. Which is not to applaud his tirades. But it is to suggest that for every disaffected Apple or Next employee burned by Jobs, there are probably 10 who by the age of 28 achieved Neil Armstrong-like highs of a lifetime at his side.

Perhaps the bitterness of some stems from the subliminal realisation that they will never soar so high again. It's a nightmare for a 28-year-old software designer, just as it is for 30-year-old Michael Jordan.

My two best bosses were my two toughest bosses. Neither was a screamer, although one came reasonably close. Both practised psychological terrorism - though neither had a clue he was doing so.

Both set mercilessly high standards for themselves. And neither believed in barriers to achievement, including acts of God (which were seen simply as opportunities to demonstrate one's mettle as never before).

Both sent me home screaming. In one case I recall - literally - a year of just about non-stop headaches.

It doesn't make for the perfectly balanced life, but I'll tell you flatly I learned more, faster, from these two than I ever did before or since.

The perfect boss is, of course, aware of individual differences and knows exactly how far to push each individual to 'attain maximum performance', or some such ideal.

Except I very much doubt bosses like that exist. Those with shockingly high standards undoubtedly cause casualties among their followers (physical and emotional - and ills that are at times severe). Yet without these outrageous pioneers, we'd never get anywhere.

Am I callous? Yes and no. To countenance the infliction of pain under any circumstances is callous. But to fail to understand that no epic bridge or dam has ever been built, no fighter aircraft tested without casualties is to fail to comprehend the real world of high-performance anything.

Fortune quotes experts who say these executive thugs suffer from low self-awareness. I'm sure that's true; and perhaps the toughies would benefit from counselling by a trusted peer (unlikely) or an older one (slightly more likely) who would clue them in from time to time on the havoc they have left in their wake.

But, let's face it. If those chiefs were thoroughly self- aware they would probably not realise how insane their towering quests are. And the world would be a poorer place for it.

Copyright TPG Communications