Innovation and big egos

Silicon Valley innovator John McAfee is currently a “person of interest” in a murder investigation in Belize; he is on the run with a teenaged girl and hiding from Belizean police.

“Silicon Valley culture really rewards a certain kind of single-minded pursuit of success,” said Leslie Berlin, a historian with Stanford University’s Silicon Valley archives and a fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Studies in the Behavioral Sciences. “It’s a culture that rewards success with financial rewards and with a real lionization of the entrepreneur who really leaves it all on the field. The inevitable question becomes, ‘What next?'” (Dan Nakaso and Mike Cassidy, “Eccentric path put McAfee on wild trajectory,” San Jose Mercury News, Monday, November 19, p. 1)

Entrepreneurial innovation often comes as part of a package with enormous ego and a certain lack of concern about other people’s emotional needs and feelings. To certain innovators, what is important is the need to be hypercreative, to create whole new structures and patterns, regardless of who gets hurt when the old patterns are demolished. And once they start innovating, sometimes they can’t stop.

“A lot of times (Silicon Vally entrepreneurs) go a little crazy, and the end result is they get in trouble,” said Rob Enderle, a San Jose technology analyst. “They don’t want to be that one-hit wonder. They get excited about the celebrity of it all, and they start chasing that celebrity. Your behavior changes substantially.” (Nakaso and Cassigy, “Eccentric path put McAfee on wild trajectory”)

What is true for Silicon Valley innovators can be true for innovative religious leaders. The most familiar example a pastor grows a huge Christian megachurch, begins to think he (it’s usually a “he” in that field) is somehow exempt from ordinary rules, and next thing you know he’s embroiled in a sex scandal. The same kind of thing has happened to yoga gurus, and to Unitarian Universalist leaders.

We often seem to assume that innovation comes only from people that have big, overbearing egos, where the health of that person’s ego isn’t as important as their single-minded pursuit of success. I suspect this assumption is wrong on at least two counts: first, the innovator can have a healthy ego rather than an unhealthy singleminded ego; and second, I’m willing to bet that innovation isn’t ever the product of a single person (even if it’s only one person who gets credit). Or to put it another way:

“A lot of times (Silicon Valley entrepreneurs) go a little crazy, and the end result is they get in trouble,” said Rob Enderle, a San Jose technology analyst. “They don’t want to that one-hit wonder. They get excited about the celebrity of it all, and they start chasing that celebrity…. (Nakaso and Cassigy, “Eccentric path put McAfee on wild trajectory”)

This is precisely the kind of thing we want to avoid in congregations. We want innovation without leaders who get in trouble.

2 thoughts on “Innovation and big egos”

  1. Hi Dan,
    Interesting post.

    Re: “We often seem to assume that innovation comes only from people that have big, overbearing egos, where the health of that person’s ego isn’t as important as their single-minded pursuit of success.”

    I agree that innovation does not always stem from only from people that have big, overbearing egos. Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa are two examples that come to mind.

    With regards to people with “big, overbearing egos”, one challenge is that they are often misguided, foolish and even sometimes dangerous. However, once in a while, one of these people, is also brilliant, visionary and innovative in a positive sense (e.g., Steve Jobs).

    Another issue is that sometimes the loud, prominent, and/or self-promoting people get the credit for innovations but this obscures the contributions of other individuals who may have actually played a more significant role.

  2. Joe, some of the philosophical background for this post came from Joseph Rost’s book Leadership for the Twenty-first Century. Rost reviews the various theories of leadership that gained currency at various times in the twentieth century, beginning with the “Great Man” theory of leadership, and he comes to the conclusion that all twentieth century theories of leadership are essentially flawed, though they each have a piece of the truth. My contention is basically that those big Silicon Valley egos have drunk the Kool-Aid — they think the success of their company comes about because of them (the “Great Man” theory of leadership), ignoring the fact that they didn’t do it alone, that institutions have infrastructure and culture that can either support or inhibit success, and that factors beyond the control of the company (e.g., economic forces, etc.) and luck also play a role. Rost’s conclusion is that you can’t have leadership without “followership,” and that leadership is actually a dynamic process wherein sometimes one person is leading and others are (actively) following and followers may move into leadership, etc. Was Steve Jobs truly visionary? or was he lucky? or was he simply surrounded by lots of really good engineers and designers? — or was he, perhaps, something of a Rostian leader who knew enough to allow his followers — designers, engineers, etc. — to take the lead? You get at these issues in your last paragraph, and to me these are the most important issues.

    On another point, you mention Gandhi, and that reminds of the recent book A First Rate Madness: Uncovering the Links Between Leadership and Mental Illness, which specifically mentions Gandhi. An excerpt from the book mentioning Gandhi is available through the Wall Street Journal Web site here. This raises an interesting point when it comes to congregations: do we want the leaders of our congregations to be perfectly mentally healthy, or are we willing to tolerate some mental illness in return for excellent leadership? And if we’re willing to tolerate mental illness, are there any mental illnesses which would be unacceptable in a congregational leader?

    All very fascinating stuff to think through….

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Solve : *
25 + 14 =