Ben Horowitz is an entrepreneur who developed a data centre software company, Opsware and sold it to HP for $1.6B in 2007. In 2009 he and Marc Andreesen (who created Netscape and Mosaic) founded the venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz. It has had some spectacularly successful investments including Airbnb, Facebook, Twitter, Skype and Pinterest. Horowitz talked about today’s leading entrepreneurs in a recent interview in Wired magazine. He said, ‘The biggest thing in common that they have is that they think for themselves in an astonishingly antisocial degree. Elon Musk, Peter Thiel, Larry Page, Mark Zuckerberg, Kanye West …..they have a very strong belief in something of their own creation and really no regard as whether people like it or not.’
We tend to think that great leaders need well developed social skills to engage, understand and motivate others. We assume that they are consensus builders. But Horowitz is telling us something quite different. To be the leader of a successful start-up you need the ability to ignore the thoughts, feelings and opinions of others in order to pursue your own convictions – however outlandish. Horowitz argues that the really great geniuses in most fields develop the ability to profoundly think for themselves. They think through anything from first principles and generally come to different and better conclusions that somebody who has read all the literature.
He gives the example of Mark Zuckerberg. In 2007 he had a full-scale revolt from this executive team. They all wanted to sell the company. One was leaking information to the press in order to force Zuckerberg’s hand. It took tremendous courage for the 23 year old founder of the company to stand up to them and say,’ I’m not going to do that. In fact I’m going to replace all of you who want to sell the company….’
Trevor Bayliss, the entrepreneur and inventor of the clockwork radio said, ‘As an innovator you need an ego the size of a truck.’ There are so many naysayers who will challenge your radical idea – often with very sensible objections.
Steve Jobs was famously disdainful of focus groups, market surveys and outside opinions. He trusted his instincts and judgements above all and was often cutting and dismissive with colleagues and subordinates.
The supportive servant leader may operate well in a large established organisation. But in a start-up environment where multiple obstacles must be overcome to bring a new product to market, the antisocial, selfish, driven know-it-all might just be the right person to make it happen.