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Corporate bullies

January 30, 2009 19:37 IST

We all know our fair share of corporate bullies--the managers who abuse power, yell, harass and micromanage their way through life. Usually their office antics breed resentment, sabotage, "mental health days" and costly turnover.

But some executives notorious for their abrasive styles--the Steve Jobs, Harvey Weinsteins and Barry Dillers of the world--are hailed as luminaries, breaths of fresh air for stale industries.

So what separates the sadists from the wunderkinds? In short, the silver-backed gorilla.

Sadists throw their weight around gratuitously, and relish the chance to watch underlings squirm. In contrast, the silver-backed gorilla will beat his chest, break branches, flash his teeth and charge--but all in the interest of protecting his troop. He secures food, mediates conflicts and provides safety, so lesser gorillas put up with his antics. His fictional counterpart is Don Corleone. In corporate America, it may be Martha Stewart.

Of course, Stewart spent five months in prison, and Don Corleone got gunned down in the street. These power players may find an aggressive style helps them claw to the top, but they often can't sustain their reign.

Bullying leaders rise in part because they are unwilling to compromise. They are committed to--and unremittingly protective of--their vision, and make large companies move with the speed of small ones.

"These are people who are very brusque in fighting for their vision," says Stanford Business School professor Roderick Kramer. "They push people aside who are too conservative or 'just don't get it.' But they also attract--and are very protective of--their followers."

As a former Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia employee told Kramer, "[Stewart] was tough to work with, but she had a really strong vision. She drew out the best in you. If you could meet her high standards and withstand her perfectionism, it was very gratifying to be in her inner circle."

Film producer and studio chairman Harvey Weinstein--whose tantrums are now regularly satirized on HBO's Entourage--is notorious for intimidating both friend and foe. Once, Weinstein allegedly confronted former Universal Pictures Chairman Stacey Snider at a cocktail party, believing she had spread rumors that he was behind a campaign to discredit Universal's A Beautiful Mind.

The New Yorker's Ken Auletta described their altercation this way: "To the petite Snider, (Weinstein) was a fearsome sight--his eyes dark and glowering, his fleshy face unshaved, his belly jutting forward half a foot or so ahead of his body. He jabbed a finger at Snider's face and screamed, 'You're going to go down for this!' "

But by most accounts, Weinstein's coarse style proved critical to shaking up Hollywood. His antics are often indulged as a necessary function of his all-consuming drive to make independent films succeed in a market that favors blockbusters.

"Until (Weinstein) came along and beat his way down doors, there was no place for indie producers in the Hollywood studio system," says Kramer. "He singlehandedly pulled the independent film industry out of the doldrums and made Miramax one of the few indie-production brand names that people associate with quality."

Weinstein's chest beating helped acclaimed films like The Thin Blue Line and The Crying Game get made and has earned his work more than 200 Academy Award nominations and over 60 awards.

Still, history shows that leaders like Stewart and Weinstein have a tendency to go too far. Stewart endured prison time on charges related to an insider trading scandal. Weinstein was recently accused of harassing Sydney Pollack on his deathbed about a film release.

InterActiveCorp CEO Barry Diller is routinely criticized for his bloated compensation package. Even New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the "populist avenger," was caught with his pants down. Every week, it seems another "visionary" is caught exerting inappropriate influence.

"At some point, those we consider 'visionaries' become puffed-up creations of their own imagination," says management consultant Gary Namie. "When business executives stop looking beyond quarterly reports and stockholder dividends, they start ignoring internal stakeholders. We're seeing that unravel now."

American tolerance for bullying leaders may be waning. "There has been a real sea change in what's conceptualized as good leadership," says Kramer. "Americans have become disenchanted with power. Almost daily, they watch as leaders--in government, in business--fail to exercise appropriate restraint."

According to a recent survey conducted by Harvard's Kennedy School, 80 per cent of Americans believe we have a leadership crisis. Only 45 per cent of respondents say they have confidence in our business executives. Only Congress and former President Bush fared worse. The highest ranked group in the survey? The military, which has the confidence of 71 per cent of people surveyed.

"The difference is that in boot camp, the military breaks you down and then builds you back up," says Namie. "These so-called 'visionary' narcissistic nut cases wouldn't dare arm their subordinates. They couldn't afford to turn their back."

It may be better for a prince to be feared than loved. But, says Harvard Business School Professor Joseph Nye, "we sometimes forget that the opposite of love is not fear but hatred. And Machiavelli made it clear that hatred is something a prince should carefully avoid."

Nicole Perlroth, Forbes
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