by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
“BUSINESS WAS ORIGINATED to produce happiness, not pile up millions.” So wrote FORBES founder B.C. Forbes–Steve’s grandfather–in the magazine’s premiere issue, almost 98 years ago. B.C. was a walking encyclopedia of business wisdom. His adages had a moral quality to them. “The man who has won millions at the cost of his conscience is a failure.” “The bargain that yields mutual satisfaction is the only one that is apt to be repeated.” And not to be forgotten: “Jealousy … is a mental cancer.”
B.C. believed good people would win in the end–most of the time. And if they didn’t win after giving it their all, the noble strivers had nothing to be ashamed of.
Do B.C.’s homilies still hold true? Should entrepreneurs, owners and managers endeavor to be good people?
There’s reason to doubt. The supersuccess of two recent business titans makes you wonder. The two are Steve Jobs and Elon Musk–bright, shrewd and occasionally nasty leaders. There’s much to study and emulate in this pair, most of it good. But Jobs was a hard man, and so is Musk. Both have documented histories of vicious verbal humiliation of others. …
… But here’s the thing: If you decide you want to behave this way, make sure you’re the company founder, you’re the smartest person in the room, you outwork everyone and that people love your products. This is why Elon Musk can act like a jerk and get away with it. He usually is the smartest person in the room, he works like a demon and people love his products.
The number of individuals who check all those boxes is minuscule. Thomas Edison . Henry Ford. Steve Jobs. Elon Musk. Jeff Bezos. Travis Kalanick. They get to be jerks more than others do. Is that fair? Who’s to say? I’m glad–and you should be, too–that they ply their intense passions within a market-based system. Imagine their talents, drive and low empathy put to use in a dictatorship or cult.
For the vast majority of us I would say: Don’t go there. Being a jerk isn’t worth it. It will damage your heart and soul. It will hurt, not help, your teams. It will lead more often to poverty than to riches. Instead, follow B.C. Forbes’ advice: Produce happiness.