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There is an ‘I’ in Visionary
(But do they really have to be arrogant egomaniacs?)

Posted on Saturday, Mar 7th 2009

By Guest Author Tony Scott

Last week I wrote that there should be no ‘I’ in CEO – at least not in successful CEOs. Of course, that was a broad generalization. Plenty of very successful founders/CEOs who are rightly lauded as visionaries are also often described as arrogant egomaniacs by the press and by those who know them. But is being an egomaniac a necessary requirement for entrepreneurial success?

I don’t think so. I think the real key to great success as an entrepreneurial CEO is tons of vision – and a self-confident, iconoclastic personality. If you look at Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Rupert Murdoch, Larry Ellison, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, you won’t find that much in common with their personal and managerial styles. But what you will find consistently is the ability to think big, and a willingness to take risks.

Richard Branson said: “My interest in life comes from setting myself huge, apparently unachievable challenges and trying to rise above them.” Visionary entrepreneurs clearly must believe in themselves to take on the challenges of creating success against the odds. But if you look at Richard Branson and compare his style and personality with that of the typical Silicon Valley entrepreneurial CEO, there is a world of difference.

No one seems to doubt that Sir Richard is a great salesman and marketeer, or that he can negotiate amazing deals – which are of course outgrowths of his charming personality and infectious belief that business can be an adventure and fun. But very few people would use the words “arrogant” or “egomaniac” to describe him. He seems to exemplify the belief that how you behave towards others actually matters, and that with great success comes great responsibility.

Unfortunately, that increasingly seems not to be the case with the typical Silicon Valley visionary CEO. Silicon Valley CEOs often seem to believe that they need to be viewed as the center of all that is good that happens with their company; that other people don’t matter that much; and that business is war – and you must be ruthless to succeed.

Is this because Silicon Valley is different, and requires a different style of leadership from its visionaries to be successful? Or is it just because the culture here has only a few role models for stupendous success?

Perhaps it is a bit of both. If you compare Apple and Virgin Group, both companies are, by almost anyone’s estimation, two of the most recognizable brands in the world that have been created in the past 50 years. They have created fiercely devoted consumers of their products and services. Both companies are very successful – and have come back from near failure. They are also both led by charismatic, baby-boomer visionaries who are marketing geniuses, neither of whom graduated from college.

But regardless of how successful Richard Branson and Virgin Group have been – (and certainly not to take away anything from their success) – the fact is that they have never truly invented or pioneered anything. What Richard Branson and his team are fantastic at is taking a look at existing products and services and seeing how they can be done differently, so that people will want to buy them from Virgin instead. He has then used the power of the Virgin brand to make forays into everything from music, to cola, to airlines.

Many of the businesses that Virgin has entered had huge, well-established incumbents. Imagine the audacity of taking on British Airways twenty-some years ago. Others had tried – and all had failed. But Richard Branson had the vision to make flying fun again, and used cheeky slogans and the brashness of an underdog to create a positioning that helped define the road to Virgin Atlantic’s success.

On the other hand, Apple and Steve Jobs can lay claim to having created personal computing that really works for non-geeks; to re-inventing the way music is delivered, sold and enjoyed; and to using the power of their technology to spur the true union of mobile telephony and the mobile web, creating a whole new universe of entrepreneurial opportunities. (Oh, and in his spare time, Steve also has this little movie business that you might have heard of called Pixar, which essentially re-invented the entire animated movie industry.)

If one examines the biggest successes in Silicon Valley in the past, most weren’t companies that were created to re-engineer relatively well-established existing products or services. The really big hits have been those companies that were started by entrepreneurs who had an idea for a “new, new thing” and who followed their vision with passion to create it. Think Intel, Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, Netscape, Google. All were relatively early entrants to relatively new sectors of technology, early enough that there was still plenty of evangelism and education of the market that needed to happen – and behaviors of buyers weren’t already locked in.

So perhaps one needs to be a bit brasher, a bit more arrogant, a bit more of an egomaniac in such situations. The Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are creating truly new products or services need to have a vision of a market that may not even exist yet. That is a very different level of belief than what is required to say that people might take a different airline, or drink a different cola, or use a different mobile phone service if it is marketed and served up in a unique and interesting way.

That level of self-confidence is much more likely to be considered arrogant and egomaniacal – or at the least, as some have described Steve Jobs, as being able to create a “reality distortion field” because of their belief in the correctness of their own vision. Of course venture capitalists want to invest in companies they believe could become the next new, new thing – and they look for leadership role models in the success stories they’ve seen before. I’ve heard more than once from VCs that they want “another Steve Jobs” as the CEO for a company they are going to invest in, which of course encourages a type of attitude among Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who want to be – or think they are – the next Steve Jobs.

But that kind of visionary genius rarely comes along, even less often than companies that will truly become the next “new, new thing”. And given the growing maturity of the technology industry, perhaps there will be even fewer “new, new things” in the future. If the above truly is the case, then maybe it is time for Silicon Valley venture investors and entrepreneurs to consider an alternative set of CEO leadership characteristics as models for success.

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Hi Tony,

Excellent article. Some thoughts come to mind immediately …

You see, an ‘entrepreneur’ who has a ‘vision’ of the nature you are discussing here, has to, by definition, be an outliar in some form or another.

It is one thing to do something incremental as an entrepreneur, but it is very different to think years ahead of the market, develop that market, and preserve the conviction at the face of tremendous odds, perhaps failures, delay in assumptions actually panning out, and myriad other adversities.

Executives cannot do this. They don’t, typically, have the wiring, and certainly, they don’t have this level of internal conviction.

As I look around, this is, perhaps, the fundamental difference I see between an executive and an entrepreneur: in the level of conviction.

Now, to be able to sustain this level of conviction, to defend the ideas, to preserve this level of commitment – you need a personality that can withstand tremendous adversity, and survive.

When you see these fiercely confident personalities, what you read as arrogant, I believe, this is what you see.

It is not necessarily arrogance inside. But it is a necessary self-confidence, without which a great entrepreneur cannot sustain a great vision.
An incremental vision – yes. A great vision – no.

Sramana Mitra Saturday, March 7, 2009 at 10:34 AM PT

Once again, thanks Tony for your well received thoughts and observations.

A few thoughts from my side. It has been my observation that successful guys like Jobs, Branson, Grove, Gates and many other men and women in class chase those things for which they are passionate NOT the money. If they are successful chasing their passion the money comes. Entrepreneurs must take a lesson from the aforementioned people and stay focused first and foremost on delivering on their passion expecting the money will follow. Their is a fine line of perception, outside looking in, on passionate people and not judging them as being arrogant. Show me a person who chases money first and void of passion for invention or improvement and I will show you an arrogant executive. VCs included.

Ron Mabry Monday, March 9, 2009 at 10:09 AM PT

The money may come if they chase their dreams, but like Jobs and Gates have proven, you make billions by removing the American workforce and contracting Chinese corporations that use slave labor….

Matt Sandine Tuesday, October 11, 2011 at 2:56 PM PT