Universally accepted attributes of psychopaths — grandiose sense of self, uncontrollable behavior, lack of empathy and lying — can be good for running a business, and Silicon Valley has its fair share.
News of bad behavior by Silicon Valley CEOs has become so frequent, it’s considered normal, New York Post reported.
A few examples: Elon Musk tweeted misinformation about the pandemic. WeWork co-founder Adam Neumann has been investigated by the New York state attorney general over allegations of self-dealing. Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes is accused of fraud and plans to plead insanity for lying about her blood-testing company. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg didn’t apologize after the Federal Trade Commission fined his company $5 billion for allowing Cambridge Analytica to mine user data for political purposes. Jeff Bezos complained during an engineer’s presentation, “Why are you wasting my life?” And Uber co-founder and CEO Travis Kalanick stepped down after being accused of sexual harassment and enabling a toxic macho work culture.
Psychopaths are all too common among Big Tech execs, according to Maëlle Gavet, a 15-year veteran of the tech industry.
Gavet was inspired by her many interactions with Silicon Valley psychopaths to write a new book, “Trampled by Unicorns: Big Tech’s Empathy Problem and How to Fix It” (Wiley).
There are psychopaths in up to 8 percent of high-level corporate executives compared with 1 percent in the general population, the Guardian reported in 2017 after a panel discussion of experts at SXSW.
This makes sense, according to Silicon Valley venture capitalist Bryan Stolle, because “it’s an irrational act to start a company”.
“You have to have a tremendous amount of ego (and) self-deception to embark on that journey,” Stolle said. “You have to make sacrifices and give up things, including sometimes a marriage, family and friends. And you have to convince other people. So they are mostly very charismatic, charming and make you suspend the disbelief that something can’t be done.”
However, they are also willing to manipulate through deception, said Jeff Hancock, a Stanford social scientist who studies psychopaths.
The mask falls off when a psychopath isn’t getting his or her way. They lose the veneer of charm. “When things aren’t happening the way they thought they were going to happen, they tend to completely flip and resort to bullying,” Stolle said.
These attributes aren’t just present “but celebrated in Silicon Valley,” said Gavet, who is the former executive vice-president of global operations for Priceline Group.
Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs was “the patron saint of Big Tech douches, the one who inspired an entire generation of start-up entrepreneurs to put their worst face forward,” Eric Spitznagel wrote for New York Post.
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Jobs disliked wearing shoes (or showering), preferred parking in handicapped parking spots and once motivated employees by calling them “f–king d–kless assholes,” Spitznagel wrote.
“His legacy has cultivated an indelible association between being a jerk and a genius,” writes Gavet, “which has ballooned to the point where many people believe that a founder-CEO, in particular, actually has to be a jerk to be a genius.”
Gavet calls it the Steve Jobs Syndrome, and she said she’s seen powerful and up-and-coming tech exes believing in the myth like it’s doctrine. Theranos, for example, copied Jobs — “not just by wearing black turtlenecks — but also by following his example of persuading people ‘to believe he was a prophet even when he was wrong,'” Gavet said.