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OUT.09.01.16.
Illustration by Jason Schneider for Fortune Magazine

Why Crazy Works in the Office

Aug 29, 2016

People are mystified by the rise of the divisive candidate who has dominated the news of this election cycle. But we’re not, are we? We’re in business. We’ve seen his type before. He’s that intense guy in the elevator each morning, heading to a plush office 30 floors above the one we call home. Or maybe he’s just down the hall in an opulent corner space not too far from your cubicle. He’s the guy—and that guy could well be a ­woman—who sets the tenor of the place, the one whose name is whispered, like Voldemort’s.

He is, in short, your crazy boss. With all the rational, kind, and obviously more mentally balanced people around who could do the job, it’s natural to wonder how somebody so spectacularly bent got to such a position of power. But his gorgeous bouquet of pathologies is far from a liability in business. Rather, it’s a tremendous asset. Whether or not this person should be placed in charge of a far more serious operation, however, is another issue entirely. So let’s get him in focus.

First, of course, he’s a bully. This word is sort of a stewpot that includes a variety of obnoxious talents. He yells. He pounds the table. He scares people. It’s simply not worth fighting with him unless one is truly prepared to engage with a person who’s willing to rip your face off to get what he wants. The Emperor Augustus, when he was a young man, got so enraged at an adversary that he ripped out his eyeball. True story. People were scared of Steve Jobs too.

This preternatural aggressiveness doesn’t allay his powerful fears, however, so he’s also paranoid. Everybody is a potential enemy. Why is everybody against him?! Come on! So unfair. They say the only thing more dangerous than being Stalin’s enemy, back in the day, was being his friend. The gulags were full of his pals. One week they’d be pounding vodka shots with Stalin at 3 a.m. The next they’d be deemed enemies of the state.

The crazy boss feels no doubt or shame or guilt, because he’s also a narcissist whose needs are the only thing that are truly real to him. This is a powerful asset in the world of commerce—particularly the delusion that one’s compulsions are destiny. Where other men and women are assailed by uncertainties, the narcissist is dead sure. He or she is never wrong, so there’s never any need to apologize. Other people are merely a vague concept, disposable tools. Think of Napoleon on Elba, dreaming of the day he can get back to France and start killing people again. Or consider the crash of 2008. What kind of guys would sell bad mortgages to people whose homes would most certainly be repossessed? I think you know.

That’s not to say the crazy boss has no feelings. Sometimes he’s attacked by a bout of wimpiness and retreats behind closed doors to nurse his wounds. Mean people. So unkind! You wonder how this guy, who’s so very insensitive to others, can be so thin-skinned about himself. But this ultrasensitivity fuels his anger, paranoia, and narcissism and sends him back out into the world once more fresh for battle.

In the end, there is good news of a sort behind all this. Because, inevitably, a crazy boss is always heading at 90 miles per hour down the highway to his own destruction. Did Nixon have to tape all those damning conversations? Did Tyco’s Dennis Kozlowski really need the $6,000 shower curtain? I won’t even mention all the stupid mergers engineered by deluded CEOs during our lifetimes. But take my word for it. Crazy bosses eventually pull the entire house down around them.

The question we have to answer is, Do we want to be in the house with them when it happens? 

A version of this article appears in the September 1, 2016 issue of Fortune with the headline "Why Crazy Works."

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