The Mirage of an Inward Mindset, Part II

An outward mindset accelerates results…but what of those well-known achievers who are successful despite having an inward mindset? Or those who achieve success because they had an inward mindset? In this two-part series, we explore why success obtained by an inward mindset is just a mirage.

By Mitch Warner, Managing Partner and Author, the Arbinger Institute | January 08, 2020

With an organization, the prominence of exaggerated individualism and cultivated larger-than-life personas often provides a short-term boost to a company’s mystique, bolstering the brand and creating often insatiable consumer interest. Steve Jobs (Apple), Elon Musk (Tesla and Space X), Richard Branson (Virgin), Lee Iacocca (Chrysler), Bob Crandall (American Airlines), and Jeff Bezos (Amazon) come to mind. But often such individualistic prominence creates benefits internally as well. Within the ranks of an organization, the singular vision supplied by a particular leader may produce intense loyalty and followership.

One Elon Musk biographer, Ashlee Vance, wrote that many of those he interviewed for his book, “decried the work hours, Musk’s blunt style, and his sometime ludicrous expectations. Yet almost every person—even those who had been fired—still worshipped Musk and talked about him in terms usually reserved for superheroes or deities.” Like others listed above, Musk is a remarkable combination of extreme drive, intelligence, and a commitment to innovation. His seeming disregard for those who stand in his way seems to elevate, rather than diminish, the appeal to work on his projects.

The same seems true of those who were deeply loyal to Steve Jobs. One manager who had hired a number of what she called “Apple refugees,” found it “difficult to reconcile her employees’ stories of [Job’s] verbal abuse with their reverence” for the man. But, for all its short-term benefits, such leader-centricity is often had at the expense of long term sustained growth in the inevitable absence of that particular leader. Because so much of the company is built around them, once they are gone the magic is over.

When the Magic Is Over

In other cases, the brief spike in valuation due to the presence of a self-promoter at the top is eventually undermined by underlying organizational issues left unresolved. As CEO of Chrysler, Lee Iacocca executed one of the most celebrated turnarounds in American business history, rescuing the automobile manufacturer from near-certain collapse. But after the company had risen to 2.9 times the market, Iacocca began to focus on his own image, ensuring he would be celebrated as the turnaround specialist. His autobiography, Iacocca, succeeded in creating his personal brand, sold seven million copies, and elevated him as a business icon. Boosting public awareness as a regular television personality, he starred in over 80 commercials and became a regular on the Today show and Larry King Live. Taking his eye off Chrysler he set his sights on the White House and was quoted as saying that “running Chrysler has been a bigger job than running the country,” boasting that he could “handle the national economy in six months.”

But while Iacocca cashed in, Chrysler’s stock plummeted, falling 31 percent behind the general market. But he wouldn’t leave, postponing retirement so many times that Chrysler employees began to say that Iacocca stood for “I Am Chairman of Chrysler Corporation Always.” The automaker rebounded five years after Iacocca retired, but never experienced sustained performance, and the company was finally purchased by Daimler-Benz. Jim Collins concludes in his analysis of the research conducted to assess “good-to-great” companies, that in two-thirds of the comparison cases—those companies in the fortune 500 in the 20th century that did not make the move from good to great—“the presence of a gargantuan personal ego…contributed to the demise or continued mediocrity of the company.” This common denominator was particularly strong, the research team noted “in the unsustained comparisons—cases where the company would show a leap in performance under a talented yet egocentric leader, only to decline in later years.”

Remarkably, the 11 companies on the Fortune 500 during the last century that met all the exacting standards of the good to great companies outlined in the study, were led by leaders whose names most would never recognize: George Cain, Alan Wurtzel, David Maxwell, Colman Mockler, Darwin Smith, Jim Herring, Lyle Everyingham, Joe Cullman, Fred Allen, Cork Walgreen, and Carl Reichardt. There appears to be an exact relationship between a leader’s interest in creating something bigger than themselves that will last long after their tenure, and the greatness and longevity of what they are able to create.

Outsized Egos Aren’t the Only Way to Be Inward

It should not be concluded that an inward mindset is only manifest in outsized ego. As far as personality goes, an inward mindset might be exactly what drives the behavior of those who show up on other side of the ego spectrum—those who don’t think themselves capable or deserving of anything. An egomaniac is no more blind to the needs and concerns of others than is the demure employee who won’t assert their opinion in a meeting, even though it would help inform the discussion, because they fear others might criticize it. Nor does the ego-centrist care anymore about others’ needs and challenges than the well-liked manager who avoids giving straightforward feedback to their employees when it is needed, protecting their image as a nice manager while letting their employees self-destruct.

Both are equally self-focused, looking to meet their needs rather than sublimate those needs to help others, and the organization, accomplish their objectives. But the truth is, we simply don’t hear of those whose drive doesn’t put them on the map personally and elevate them as individuals in the public awareness.

Needing to Appear Nice Cripples Our Ability to Deliver Straightforward Feedback

It also may be that some who have been accused of an inward mindset behave in ways that fail to conform to accepted rules of social engagement precisely because they care more about results than their own image. Could it be, for example, that the success of Steve Jobs was possible only because of the rare confluence of his commitment to excellence without the burden of needing to appear nice? Needing to appear nice never crippled Jobs’ ability to deliver the truth and keep people focused on the objectives at hand. Precious time was never wasted stroking others’ egos. “With all the talk about how rough Steve could be,” wrote Ken Segall, Apple’s Creative Director during Jobs’ tenure, “it should be acknowledged that oftentimes he was only doing what many of us wished we could do. Steve saw no reason to be delicate when his time, and the time of everyone in the room, was being wasted.” Steve’s ambivalence to others’ feelings, at least in Segall’s view, was simply a byproduct of his expectation that everyone in the room should be as focused on results as he was.

One of Segall’s first encounters with Jobs during the early days of NeXT resulted in “absolutely the most uncomfortable meeting of my professional life,” he wrote in his description of Apple, Insanely Simple. As representatives of Chiat/Day, the advertising agency providing design strategies to NeXT, Segall and the Chiat Day Team flew 3,000 miles to share their initial work. Jobs immediately rejected the work and scheduled a meeting for the next week. Segall saw quickly how what had been presented widely missed the mark. With a week till their next meeting, the team hurried to create a proposal that they felt would meet the needs of the company.

As they sat down for this second presentation, Jobs said he wanted to talk about their first meeting. The condensed version, Segall recounted, went like this: “The work you showed me last week was shit. I knew it was shit, you knew it was shit, but you came all the way out here and showed it to me anyway. That’s not acceptable and I never want it to happen again. Ever.” Once the new work was presented, and Jobs was satisfied with what had been created, he explained that “he felt a little bad that he’d been so angry when we first sat down,” but that “the previous meeting had been weighing on his mind. He’d considered saying nothing and waiting to see the quality of our work in round two, but he thought it was important to clear the air. That’s why he had spoken up.”

Then he proceeded to share with the team how, from his perspective, each of them was doing. The art director, whom Jobs held responsible for the fiasco, he gave an “F.” “If you can’t do a better job than that,” Segall remembers Jobs saying, “you’re going to have to replace yourself.” In short, Jobs knew that what would the most helpful thing was also the most difficult. Faced with a choice to raise difficult issues or say nothing, Jobs spoke up. And as a result, Chiat/Day was able to deliver what NeXT needed and, in so doing, retain their contract. They went on to become the highly successful partner of the original Macintosh. Chiat/Day was also brought back as Apple’s ad agency when Steve was reinstalled as the leader in 1997. What could have ended in disaster was reclaimed.

“Thanks to his honesty,” Segalls recalls, “we all knew exactly where we stood with him. It may not always be welcome news, but there is great value in understanding the state of your relationship—knowing what you’ve done right, what you’ve done wrong, and what you must do to ensure a happy future. No matter how unpleasant it might have been at times, we did get that with Steve, and it worked to the benefit of all. It’s when things are left unresolved that people spend too much of their time looking over their shoulders instead of looking ahead.”

Straightforward Feedback Is Necessary, Nastiness Is Not.

Could Jobs have handled this interchange differently? More civilly? Undoubtedly. Would a greater sensitivity to the needs of others have heightened his success? Would others have responded with more creativity, loyalty, and initiative had he seen their objectives and modulated his behavior to provide what they needed rather than demanding what he needed? We will never know.

For all his success, who knows what could have been possible had Jobs been able to more consistently operate from an outward mindset. After surveying his life and work as only a biographer does, Walter Issacson concludes that “nasty was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him.”

The same is likely true everywhere.

In healthcare, for example, 71 percent of more than 4,500 doctors, nurses, and hospital staff surveyed connected disruptive behavior “such as abusive, condescending or insulting conduct” with medical errors, and “27 percent tied such behavior to patient deaths.” Of course, simply trying to get doctors, patients, and staff to behave more civilly could never solve the underlying issue. The abuse, condescension, and insults are simply the outward manifestation of a mindset that sees our own needs as paramount, and discounts the human needs of those around us—including the most human need to be seen as a person.

If, in a hospital, those delivering care connect 71 percent of errors and 27 percent of deaths to this inward mindset, can we not assume that an outward mindset in such innovation icons as Steve Jobs would not have achieved even greater innovation? Imagine the possibilities.

Lastly, rude behavior that originates in an inward mindset of a leader will naturally trickle down to those operating with customers on the front lines. Georgetown University professor Christine Porath, and marketing professors Deborah MacInnis and Valerie Folkes at the University of Southern California conducted a series of studies in the workplace that demonstrated that “people are less likely to patronize a business that has an employee who is perceived as rude—whether the rudeness is directed at them or at other employees. Witnessing a short negative interaction leads customers to generalize about other employees, the organization, and even the brand.”

Can one individual operating from an inward mindset get things done.

No question.

But at what cost?

What more might be accomplished when the outward mindset of a leader invited an outward mindset in everyone around them?

Want to learn more about leading with an outward mindset? Check out The Outward Mindset: Seeing Beyond Ourselves.