Some of the world's greatest leaders are 'brilliant jerks'

Some of the world's greatest leaders are 'brilliant jerks'
Image via Wikimedia Commons

As Eric Lander —the renowned biologist and geneticist who served as the president’s science advisor and director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)— announced his resignation this week, amid reports of his "bullying" behavior toward employees.

An analysis written by The Bulwark's David Shaywitz shed light on the circumstances surrounding Lander's debacle as he explained the downside to brilliance. An investigation conducted by Politico "found evidence of 'bullying' behavior by Lander, as well as 'credible evidence of instances of multiple women having complained to other staff about negative interactions with Dr. Lander.'”

Lander addressed the reports in his resignation letter writing, “I am devastated that I caused hurt to past and present colleagues by the way in which I have spoken to them."

He also added:

I have sought to push myself and my colleagues to reach our shared goals—including at times challenging and criticizing. But it is clear that things I said, and the way I said them, crossed the line at times into being disrespectful and demeaning, to both men and women.

According to Shaywitz, leaders like Lander underscore a major character flaw that tends to come with brilliance.

"We don’t have to look far to find leaders with distasteful traits—“brilliant jerks” they’ve been called—who have transformed their businesses: Elon Musk comes to mind," Shaywitz wrote, adding, "Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber. Anna Wintour of Vogue, the inspiration for The Devil Wears Prada. Many other examples, both contemporary and historical, suggest themselves."

He also touched on the mental trends often associated with people in positions of power. "In practice, power is often obtained through behavior that tends to be narcissistic, disingenuous, manipulative," he wrote. "Pfeffer cites Robert Caro’s rich biographies of Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses, transformative leaders who rose to power through the ruthless exercise of deplorable behavior."

But despite the longstanding history associated with toxic leaders, many people are still hoping for effective change. Shaywitz noted that New York Times technology writer Shira Ovide has expressed similar concerns last year as she noted that it might be “impossible to separate the reckless carnival barker who deludes himself and others from the bold ideas that really are helping to change the world for the better.”

She added, "I hate thinking this. I want to believe that technologies can succeed without aiming to reprogram all of humanity and without the associated temptations to engage in fraud or abuse. I want the good Musk without the bad. I want the wonderful and empowering elements of social media without the genocide. But I just don’t know if we can separate the wonderful from the awful."

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