Countless listicles, marketing blogs, and self-help pyramid schemes have been built around the question of what makes a successful CEO. Might the answer have been in front of us the whole time?
On September 13, 2009, an event transpired that reverberated around the world. As Taylor Swift was in the midst of giving her acceptance speech for her MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Video, Kanye West waltzed onto the stage, grabbed the microphone, and as an embarrassed TSwift looked on, proclaimed, “Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, Imma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time…one of the best videos of all time!”
He shrugged, handed the microphone back to Taylor, and MTV cut to a commercial break. In this short moment, Kanye West exhibited the key factor that makes or breaks a CEO.
The CEOs who nurture quixotic visions into billions usually get there the same way. Steve Jobs wasn’t a genius coder or a master engineer. He had a vision for how things should look, and he wouldn’t let anyone get in his way. His perfectionism and micromanagement interfered in his personal and professional life, and he nixed more products than ever came to light. But he trusted his gut on what would and wouldn’t work, peers and customers be damned.
Zero consumer input went into this.
When asked about the market research that went into Apple’s trailblazing products, Jobs famously replied, “none. It’s not the consumers’ job to know what they want.” Apple customers didn’t get what Apple customers asked for. Apple customers got what Steve Jobs asked for. And it worked – I still use my iPod Nano and it’s 2018. No one got in the way of his vision, and that’s how he built a company that was valued at $300 billion in 2011, the year Jobs died.
Realizing the unlikely
Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX and supervillain archetype, launched his personal car into space. This program, and all of SpaceX’s other successes, would not have come to fruition if Musk had not literally been spat on in Russia.
When the software millionaire first attempted to realize his sci-fi dreams of colonizing Mars, he was in the market for a rocket. His friends tried to talk him out of it, but it was no use. In 2001, he traveled with a small entourage to Moscow, where he intended to buy a ballistic missile. There, he was laughed out of meeting after meeting (and spat on), until he was eventually offered what he wanted – for $8 million. Sick of not being taken seriously, he decided that if he wanted this undertaking done right, he needed to do it himself. And he did. SpaceX is now worth $24 billion, and though it may be overvalued, it’s enough to buy a whole lot of Russian ballistic missiles at full price.
When all the parking spots near the mall are full, amiright? Source: SpaceX
With a net worth of $108.9 billion, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is the richest man to ever live. What started as the first online bookstore has evolved into an empire. To get there, Bezos had to take enormous risks and double down on his vision as larger, hungrier competitors encroached on his niche.
He’s also been accused of underpaying workers, enabling slavery-like conditions in his factories, and running a modern monopoly. But when asked about how he feels about fielding criticism from the Washington Post, which Bezos owns, he insisted that he would never interfere. In fact, he would be embarrassed to do so. Criticism is healthy, he believes, and when it’s valid, it’s a helpful tool for change. When it’s not, it just rolls off.
So, what makes a successful CEO?
Back to Kanye at the 2009 VMAs. Not only was he correct in his assessment – the “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” video is an unparalleled masterpiece – but he had the guts to call it as he saw it, when he saw it, for better or for worse. It worked to his benefit. Kanye increased his recognizability, got people talking about him, and then disappeared for a few months. When he resurfaced, it was to promote one of his best-received albums. He marketed himself brilliantly, and he did so by not giving a single s#*%.
There are a host of things that these CEOs have in common, from the obvious (big dreams, internal motivation) to the less so (shrewd personal marketing, a touch of sociopathy). Being a successful CEO does not necessarily mean being a good leader, or a good boss. It means that they were able to turn their plans into heaps of money. And in order to do that, they had to make sure they were set in that mission, despite what others might think. Someone building a business from the ground up has to know how to say “you know what? Screw this. I’m doing it my way.”