When Brilliant Minds Become Brilliant Jerks

The NYTimes Bits Blog has a worthwhile read from last week entitled “What Do You Do With the Brilliant Jerks?” I’d encourage startup founders and team members to take 8 minutes and read it thoroughly.

On its face, the article didn’t strike me as especially controversial, but the comments(and some of the responses on social media) tell a different story. Here’s a pair that reasonably represent much of the criticism:

“I have listened to Brilliant Jerks proclaim, “I am the one who is always on call, who drives the most revenue, who is here on weekends and who has the knowledge.” And the Brilliant Jerk speaks the truth. But I have also seen him stick his head in the door and deflate an entire management team. A growth company needs enablers, not disablers.”

This paragraph perfectly illustrates what is wrong with the MBA crowd. A growth company doesn’t need managers who cannot handle criticism of their ideas, especially from people who are in the position to know what they’re talking about. That is the kind of egocentricisim that companies should be concerned about.


With all due respect, this article is written by an ungrateful “suit” who does not recognize or appreciate the value of brilliant people and is not equipped to channel their energy and contributions in a positive way. Instead of recognizing his own shortcoming, he is dealing with it by labeling them as “jerks” and getting rid of them. Great strategy! — you will soon be left with a company full of mediocre conformists that will eventually run out of the initial momentum created by the founding geniuses and go out of business (hopefully, sadly the world is not always so fair).

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were both brilliant geniuses who went out of their way to surrond themselves with other brilliant people, not the other way around. Brilliant people should always work for people who are as / or more brilliant than themselves. That is the only way they are going to be appreciated for who they are and the value they create.

I’ve been lucky to have had very few “brilliant jerks” (by the author’s definition) working with me, but I’ve been exposed to plenty of startups who’ve had them and a few times, I’ve dealt with it personally. Since I enjoyed the article and would largely agree with the author (though I would grant the commenters that Oxford’s did not sound like the most egregious of cases), I thought I’d share a few thoughts:

  • In my experience, there’s a profoundly disturbing and wrong-headed mythology about the “brilliant mind” or the “10X hire.” They don’t exist. The most amazing hires may produce 2X or even 3X what a good hire can, not 10X or even 4X.
  • Great producers that hurt morale (even a little) are technically adding value until the team size reaches a certain number, at which point, the -20% productivity they cost everyone else will hurt more than the 2-300% productivity they provide themselves.
  • When management rewards individuals who carry a negative attitude or are combative with other team members because they perform to certain tangible metrics, it sets an ugly, dangerous precedent. That precedent will spiral into a culture where paychecks are the only incentive and everyone with a positive attitude will seek work elsewhere. Don’t get me wrong – these companies can thrive from a pure growth/revenue perspective, but startuppers need to ask themselves if that’s what they really want to build.
  • Brilliant jerks can be successful leaders – Steve Jobs and Elon Musk and Bill Gates are probably all examples. However, the degree to which these are outliers is absurd. Take 1,000 “brilliant jerk” founders and I’d bet that <2 will have enough brilliance to overcome the jerkiness.
  • Contrast this with founders with reasonable smarts, but a focus on building long term cohesiveness, developing a solid product, and letting go of high achievement low culture-fit employees. The % out of 1,000 rises much higher in my experience. If you look across the tech startup world, you’ll see a lot of the brilliant jerk founders are let go (or leave) in the first few years of the startup’s life.
Obviously, I’ve got a very biased view. I’m by no means a brilliant mind (and I hope I”m not a jerk, or that if I am, someone at Moz speaks up). My intelligence is probably on the moderately high end of average (I’ve never taken a formal IQ test). I worked pretty hard on what I thought were good ideas for the first 6 years of my career and got nowhere. Becoming more humble, more grounded, more culture-focused, and building a team of contributors that work together exceptionally well has brought massively greater amounts of success in every sense.

Best of all, I love coming in to work and I love to spend time with my co-workers. One of my favorite quotes comes from Abraham Heschel: “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”

p.s. Thanks to Brad Feld, who sent me the article.