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A Cargo Cult of Personality


Leaders and entrepreneurs often justify bad behavior and tyrannical management practices by invoking the mythology of Steve Jobs.  This is a “Cargo Cult of Personality“, where people emulate the mythologized and unconnected personality traits of successful people.

Richard Feynman spoke about Cargo Cults:

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land.

They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cults because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.

It’s easier to learn from failure than from success when it comes to management, business, or technology.  When someone fails, publicly it’s far easier to track the causality from what they did or didn’t do back to important principles.  When people succeed publicly, we only see the highlight reel of their longer struggle and journey, not the behind the scenes footage.  It’s easy to misconstrue the most prominent features and myths about people or companies in the glow of their success.

When it comes to Steve Jobs, it seems he learned to be a better manager and person slowly over his career and only put the pieces together at the end of his career in rejoining Apple as CEO.  Steve Jobs was successful in spite of being an asshole, not because of it.

I see so many entrepreneurs and business leaders thinking that a tyrannical style of micromanagement or ruthless pursuit of products over people will deliver success.  The most recent stories about Tony Fadell only seem to support this happening once again.  It’s not how you run a business or manage people, it’s a cargo cult of personality.

Categories: Management, Startups
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