The best CEOs can be the most unreasonable

Don Spetner explores the association between between C-suite brusqueness and effectiveness.

I know I’m a little late to the party, but I just finished reading Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs. I then watched the Danny Boyle movie based on it. Both paint an unflattering personal portrait of a man who will arguably go down as one of the greatest CEOs of our time. And they left me wondering about the correlation between brusqueness and effectiveness.

Most CEOs I’ve known have been relentlessly demanding. They’ve been short on patience, intolerant of mediocrity, and relatively unyielding. While I wouldn’t describe them as uncaring, none had the luxury of worrying if their decisions might hurt feelings. The best were resolute about their vision whether people agreed with them or not. And they constantly pushed managers out of their comfort zones.

One of the toughest leaders I worked for was Eli Broad. He founded two Fortune 500 companies — KB Home and SunAmerica — and regularly appears on the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest people in the world. As a boss Broad was exacting and unapologetically difficult to please. But it’s hard to argue with his results.

A few years ago he wrote a book, The Art of Being Unreasonable, which addressed this demanding leadership style head on. He titled his book on a quote from George Bernard Shaw: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

That line came to mind recently as I attended the official civic dedication of
The Broad, the 120,000-square-foot $140-million contemporary art museum that he essentially created for the city of Los Angeles. Admission is free and people line up around the block to get a chance to see his world-class art collection.

I listened to speeches from Governor Jerry Brown and Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti. Each lauded the indelible impact this museum would have on the city of Los Angeles and how it symbolized the transformation of downtown LA.

I had a flashback to the 1990s, when I worked for Broad. He preached incessantly about his vision for downtown. He painted a picture of a cultural center that would serve as a magnet for artists and young peo­ple, whom he claimed would choose to live and work in the community. His vision was part of a fundraising drive he spearheaded for the Frank Gehry–designed Disney Hall — at that time nothing more than a parking lot.

I thought he was crazy. I couldn’t understand how a fancy concert hall for the LA Philharmonic would have any real impact on downtown. I also couldn’t fathom who would want to hang out in a desolate part of town. Most of all, I assumed that no sane person would choose to live downtown.

Some 20 years later I found myself sitting among a crowd of dignitaries in front of a world-class art museum situated next to the magnificent Walt Disney Concert Hall. Surrounding us was a thriving downtown community filled with hip restaurants, art galleries, concert halls, and, yes, blocks and blocks of apartments, condos, and residential lofts.

Through sheer force of will (and not a small amount of money), Broad’s vision had been realized — one I had thought impossible. When he’d described the plan 20 years earlier, I’d thought he was unreasonable. Perhaps that was the point.

Don Spetner is a senior corporate adviser with Weber Shandwick. He was previously CCO and CMO for Korn/Ferry International. He can be reached at donspetner@gmail.com.

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