Why High-Profile Tech CEOs Get Into Trouble

In today’s news scrum, the staff debates whether CEOs can live happy and balanced lives while running fast-moving companies.

Why High-Profile Tech CEOs Get Into Trouble

Today’s News Scrum Discussion: The hardest part about innovating in your work–a thought from Dennis Crowley.

fwiw i think the hardest part of this gig is having to change / grow / mature / improve so quickly insider (sic) your work world while trying to stay exactly the same outside your work world.

Crowley was responding to an earlier post by venture capitalist Bijan Sabet, who asked the question: would Steve Jobs have been Steve Jobs if he was happy and balanced? Few of us have insight into the daily life of a high-profile tech CEO, but it seems like we’ve seen this struggle to balance the needs of the company with the personality of the individual from just about every modern tech leader.


Aside from Jobs, there’s the story of Larry Page, who, after re-taking the helm of the company he founded, shocked many longtime Googlers by effectively ending the company’s popular 20% time and ruthlessly shutting down beta projects in a way Google never did before. After joining Yahoo, CEO Marissa Mayer infamously banned telecommuting, even though she had just had a baby and was reportedly working from home herself. David Karp, Tumblr’s CEO, also got into trouble after his company was acquired by Yahoo by promising not to change Tumblr’s content censorship policies and then turning around and removing the ability to search for certain adult content in the company’s apps.

The bottom line is that staying true to principles over the long term seems nearly impossible for high-profile CEOs when they face pressure to perform. Viewed in this light, Jobs may have actually been the most successful at staying true to himself, because by most accounts he started out as an almost insufferable savant. That doesn’t mean he led a happy or balanced life by any means, but Crowley’s quote, viewed in the context of Jobs, does help you understand why he was so successful for so long and never seemed to run into the problems other CEOs have faced despite being a walking bundle of contradictions. Gabe Stein

In today’s age I would say that it is emphatically impossible for a high-profile tech CEO to balance his or her needs and ideals with that of the needs of the company. The reason Jobs could do it is because he got into the tech industry in its nascent days when the endgame of starting a tech company wasn’t to be acquired or go IPO–it was to change the world. Jobs did get rich off his company, but that wealth was secondary to his primary goal. And once Jobs got rich and changed the world, that gave him the power and respect to tell the owners of Apple–that is, the investors–to fuck off and trust him or take their money elsewhere.

That wouldn’t happen anymore. First and foremost because many tech CEOs see the endgame of their brilliant idea as a means to become rich. If you want that, you need investors and you need to keep them happy–so you do whatever they want. And even if modern tech CEOs’ goals are not riches, but creating a product that changes the world, the economies of scale to compete in a now mature tech industry are so large, it’s hard to do so without outside cash supporting your development or manufacturing efforts. That means you’re beholden to your moneymen, who, quite frankly, don’t give a crap about your ideals–because they’re always looking for an exit strategy. Michael Grothaus

Mark Zuckerberg might be the closest present-day CEO to an unwavering Steve Jobs type leader. One that is uninterested in money for money’s sake and more interested in the product. Like Jobs, Zuckerberg has continued to press forward with his vision, in Facebook’s case, for how online social should be done.

From the outside, Zuckerberg has remained focused. It’s obvious though that internally Zuckerberg must have matured incredibly quickly in order to deal with a blockbuster movie showing the world his previous antics and controversial beginnings. Capturing nearly a sixth of the world’s population as your company’s user base also can’t come without a higher level of maturity.


There are CEOs that can retain the appearance of being the same, or similar to their original selves–there just aren’t that many. Tyler Hayes

Are CEOs the only ones who suffer from a lack of work-life balance? We have a plethora of productivity seminars and lifehacking blogs all created to help ordinary people deal with this contradiction. The audience for those can’t only be tech CEOs who are losing touch with their social lives or the person they used to be. With the financial crisis, and especially student loan debt soaring, more and more people have to work multiple jobs just to stay afloat. Surely that places on strain on relationships with friends and family.

That’s not to belittle the immense amount of time and energy that CEOs invest in their companies to provide much-needed direction and big-picture thinking. I just anecdotally can also think of people working in a variety of fields whose titles don’t include those three magic letters who are also struggling to find the right balance.

This discussion of “balance” also reminds me of cliched discussions people love to have about artists and mental illness. I’m thinking of people like Plath, Coleridge, and Van Gogh, who all struggled with mental illness. We have a voyeuristic tendency to wonder if they would have been such great artists if they didn’t have a mental imbalance they were struggling with. It’s this same kind of wonder we have about the obsessiveness that characterized Jobs. But isn’t the truth that it’s just sexier to think of creative geniuses this way? Jay Cassano

Charismatic CEOs, or at least those with a tailored public persona, are present and important in all areas of business, but the pressure to be a mainstream media celebrity seems specific to tech. I was reading today that 68% of Fortune 500 CEOs don’t have any social media presence. At all. And there are about 45 tech companies on the Fortune 500 so (presumably) all of those CEOs are on social media plus about 100 others give or take. And that includes Warren Buffet, who has 542,000 Twitter followers even though he’s only tweeted twice.

Basically, what I take from this is that the CEOs of tech companies are under impossible pressure to appear as a complete person and not just the boss at a big company. It’s not enough for the CEO to live and breathe the work, she has to also voice public opinions about other issues, endure scrutiny into her private life, and ride a unicycle around her corporate campus. I agree with Jay that work-life balance applies to all people, but it’s a weird competitive pressure that has emerged for tech CEOs. They have to prove their efficacy while handling the pitfalls of mainstream celebrity.


Crowley’s assessment of life as a CEO seems accurate, but when he says that you have to, “stay exactly the same outside your work world” this seems like an oversimplification. CEOs have to remain constant in their overall philosophy and views while still appearing to grow and evolve personally. Someone who never dates, gets married, has kids, buys a new house, whatever, can be an unsettling force as the recognizable face of a company. I agree with Michael that there’s no way to win. Lily Hay Newman

Compulsiveness: Is it a gift for commercial productivity, or a curse of unhappiness and social alienation?

I agree with Jay that talk of Steve Jobs’s “savantism,” as Gabe calls it, brings to mind mental illness and creativity–the hypothetical link between the two. But I disagree that this view is more hype than substance.

Talking about “work-life balance,” most writers assume that CEOs are in control of their actions–that they could choose to be a more attentive spouse or parent, to restrain themselves from obsessing tenaciously about work. I doubt this is the case for many, like Jobs. Fred Wilson says this:

Jobs is the quintessential entrepreneur and there is so much to be learned from him. The power of focusing should be at the top of that list. When you focus, you can rid yourself of extraneous expenses (Jobs laid off over 3,000 people in his turnaround of Apple)

Jobs’s ruthless brilliance reminds me of Jon Ronson’s book The Psychopath Test, in which he tracks the history of clinical sociopathy, and its prevalance among CEOs. At least for Jobs–and probably for many CEOs–compulsion seems like drug addiction: mania, hyperactivity in ADHD, or intrusive thoughts in depression are not voluntary; Nor, I’d argue, is the kind of superhuman-ego that animates a person like Jobs. What Wilson calls “the power of focusing” could just as easily be called “the disorder of compulsion.”

“Savantism” is typically a word associated with Asperger’s syndrome, which I realize Jobs’s probably didn’t qualify for clinically. But his often antisocial behavior was surely on the spectrum. As John Elder Robison, brother of Running With Scissors‘ author Augusten Borroughs, shows in his memoir Look Me In The Eye, high-functioning “Aspies” often behave a lot like Jobs: single-minded, focused on goals over people.


Put a different way, CEOs by definition have abnormal brains and minds, like criminals do: Since their behavior is extraordinary, so are their psychologies. Neuroscientist-writer David Eagleman has argued crime should be treated as illness, subjected to rehab rather than prison. Seems to me, so should the freakish productivity and work-life imbalance of many CEOs. Taylor Beck

[Image: Flickr user Jonathan Kos-Read]