The Jerkstore called. Do we need a few more?

I read a lot of biographies.  In the last six months I have read biographies of CS Lewis, Calvin Coolidge, Catherine the Great, Genghis Khan, Thomas Jefferson, Rasputin, Glenn Gould, Lyndon Johnson, ExxonMobil, Winston Churchill and a book that was essentially a biography of FA Hayek and Milton Friedman.  You will note that all of these folks plied their trade at least a generation ago.

As you can tell, I prefer to read about folks whose legacy has marinated a bit.  I have read real time bios in the past but I find they can be coloured with the direct biases of the writer (for or against) whereas when the writer doesn’t rely on his or her direct experience it tends to be a better product.  But I heard Malcolm Gladwell urging folks to read the Steve Jobs biography and he is right.  It is a tour de force.  Well worth the read.

It, among other things, prompted this column that ran in the TJ yesterday:


Do we need more jerks?

I recently finished reading the biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs.

There is no way to sugar coat it. Steve Jobs was a jerk.

He was tyrant as a boss and belligerent with his colleagues and partners. He would berate the stupidity of ideas put forward by staff and subsequently take credit for them as his own. He didn’t even like customers much and detested market research and focus groups. This nastiness extended into his private life. He would purposely park his car in spaces reserved for handicapped people. He abandoned his first child, backstabbed long -time friends and despite his enormous wealth had virtually no interest in philanthropy.

Steve Jobs will go down in history as one of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs as a result of his successes with Apple and Pixar. More importantly for me, these companies generate tens of billions of dollars in tax revenues every year for governments around the world.

While Steve Jobs was an outlier there is ample research on the personality traits of very successful entrepreneurs and it turns out most are not particularly nice people. They are narcissistic, single-minded, passionate and highly driven and they expect everyone around them to be the same. They will run roughshod over employees, partners and anyone else that gets in their way. They can’t stand incompetence.

Contrast that with the personality traits of the typical New Brunswicker. We are nice to a fault. When you ask someone in Toronto or Calgary to describe a New Brunswicker they will use terms like ‘friendly’ and ‘laid back’. Is there a fundamental incompatibility between highly ambitious entrepreneurship and the very cultural attributes that we work to nurture in this province? Could this be a main reason why we turn out so few highly successful entrepreneurs? Of course the reality is not so simple. While virtually all successful entrepreneurs and leaders are driven and push those around them to strive for excellence – not all of them are jerks. Conversely, there are lots of disagreeable people around that do not build great companies or transform lethargic organizations.

But this is still an important question worth asking. Do we need more hard-nosed, risk averse, narcissistic entrepreneurs prepared to step on a few toes to move their companies ahead?

I extend this argument even further. Do we need this kind of leader across New Brunswick society in government, education and public institutions? Do we need tough guys and gals that push back against incompetence and relentlessly drive their organizations to be world beaters?

I suspect many New Brunswickers would say no. They would say our laid back and friendly demeanour is the best part of our culture. The last thing we need is a bunch of hard drivers making the world uncomfortable for everyone else. But a little discomfort may be just what we need right now. In his excellent new book, Antifragile, Nassim Taleb describes how organizations atrophy and eventually waste way if they are not in a constant state of stress or discomfort. It’s the stress on our bodies when we exercise that makes us stronger. The same holds for companies, government departments, educational institutions and, I would argue, for New Brunswick as a whole.

For most folks, it’s pretty comfortable these days in New Brunswick. Maybe the EI reforms will inject a little needed stress. Maybe the tightening of public spending will help people start to better understand the link between a vibrant economy and their personal quality of life.

But more than the ‘what’, even more importantly, ‘who’ is going to shake us out of our comfort zone?

Maybe we need a few more jerks starting companies and occupying key leadership positions to shake things up. If we don’t have them already, perhaps we should attract them here.

Calling all jerks with a demonstrated track record in leadership or successful entrepreneurship…. have we got a job for you.

6 thoughts on “The Jerkstore called. Do we need a few more?

  1. A ‘Jerk’ by the mane of Stephen Harper is shaking things up in NB right now with the EI changes. Is it what we need? Perhaps…time will tell…

    There was more to Job’s success than simply being a Jerk. As you mentioned he was an outlier. Job’s was an absolute genius. He was a visionary and he bull-dozed over anyone who did not share his passion and his vision or stand in front of it. Everything else was noise to him. What made him successful was his tenacity and relentless pursuit of perfection and realization of his vision…oh and the Iphone went gang busters! He also knew when to listen to some people too ( I also read the book) like Woz or Ivey. So I guess my opinion is do we need more Jerks? No. Do we need more people to challenge the status quo to implement their vision? Hell yes! But to be clear, in NB, these people would be viewed as Jerks…which might be your point.

  2. I’m not sure if Jerk is the right term to use but definitely know where your are heading with this. While I might be considered a jerk by some for my direct approach with @launch36 mentorship, my goal is to treat each entrepreneur with dignity and honesty when providing feedback or asked for an opinion. The worse thing you can do for an entrepreneur is to encourage them to proceed even when you know they are heading for a cliff.

    Our motto is that we will help you Fail fast so you can fix fast and it seems to be working for us…

  3. The analogy with New Brunswick is perfectly apt. New Brunswick is hardly a laggard, in most ways the province was always ahead of the curve. There was this guy, what was his name again, something ‘Irving’ or something like that. Apparantly he was a business man or something, and apparantly he gobbled up every media company in the province back when Rupert Murdoch was writing editorials. He practically invented ‘vertical integration’ back when most companies thought that was a sexual euphamism.

    The rest of the world is just now catching up to New Brunswick, getting close to about the same level of inequality-all thanks to the ‘jerks’ out there.

    But like I said, that is beginning to change, and people who hold up ‘jerks’ as ‘straight talkers’ are definitely dwindling. A mentor is NOT somebody who ‘talks straight’-those are called CRITICS. And I’d like to repeat my old story about a fourth year marketing course at UNB, where a group of MBA ‘mentors’ had purchased the old clock factory in Marysville and had a long list of reasons why the old mom and pop who ran it were outdated. They had lots of predictions about the market, and two years later were out of business. They lost their shirts, while ‘mom and pop’ took their money to retire in Florida.

    And oh, I think you have it a bit wrong, its CANADIANS who are considered ‘laid back’-except maybe Toronto. I’ve got news for you, outside of New Brunswick, NOBODY knows a thing about New Brunswickers. However, given the level of protest at the legislature on any given month, I’d really have to disagree that NBers are so laid back. Now, maybe if a government would try to fire up some of that gumption for something positive, then things might turn around. But that hardly takes a jerk. Take the greatest motivators you can think of, how many of them were jerks?

  4. Increasing the joke quotient might help, but even jerks need opportunity. What NB needs first is more opportunities for the entrepreneurs (jerks or not to flourish.

  5. Jobs was a Jerk?

    I disagree… and of course agree. There are several people I am sure would say the same thing about me, I try, test and move on often. I try to fit in, and be nice… but at the end of the day, I have a goal to achieve… and will. Though I learned to do it with as much tact as I can. I am by no means near the level of Jobs, Irving, Olands, or well… any higher level.

    The difference though, between Toronto and New Brunswick, is simply resources. I can be a demanding, narcissistic boss no worries… I imagine I could be rather good at it. But, the problem comes down to resources. Hiring employees here in NB, even though there is a pool of potentials, would be the issue. Unlike Jobs, who can burn through 3000 people and get away with it, knowing there are 100k of people he can burn through next week, we don’t have that option.

    If we burned through a good 60, that could dry up a pool of great people.

    BUT I would think it is our ability to develop tact, grace, and understanding, that will help us in the long term… train, develop and work to not only make us as owners happy, but our employees whom, I would imagine, embrace family life more than work life.


  6. It’s been a while since I’ve looked at this site… and I might now remember why I stopped reading it.

    David, I think you make an excellent point (the jerk angle is just one of those effective ways to package the message as an attention grabber (sadly, so necessary now-o-days)).

    But when reading the comments… I’m especially perplexed by the style of some arguments, more importantly, the use of premises. For instance the “we don’t have access to appropriately skilled labor” statement; especially when I can find (within a few minutes of surfing) examples such as a company in Fredericton that claims to be Web Marking and Technology company, but which has a blog with a single (6 month old) entry that has the initial “welcome wordpress” message. Such lack of attention to detail is just what Steve Jobs was not able to stand for, from himself nor from his employees.

    Also, how should we define a “good” employee (and by extension, a “good” labor pool)? If a “good” employee is defined as one that can make the greatest contribution to company success, then is this “goodness” wholly defined by technical skill? Does a successful company become successful through hiring based on capacities (i.e. behavioral indicators), or per-obtained technical proficiencies? Do we accept the former, or latter? What responsibility to success should we assign the leaders/founder within these companies?

    Even if we do not accept my model – what is “it” that is lacking when companies imply that their lack of success is associated with deficiencies in the labor force?

    I’m not claiming I have the answers – but I welcome a rigorous dissection of our framing of the problem. Without such rigor, we will remain prone to collecting into herds that chase solutions to problems that most likely don’t even exist.

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