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Secrets of the ‘Superbosses’: Larry Ellison, Glorious Bastard

Syd Finkelstein is the Steven Roth Professor of Management, and Faculty Director, Tuck Executive Program (TEP), Tuck Center for Leadership at Dartmouth

Larry Ellison, Michael Milken, Roger Corman, Bonnie Fuller, Julian Robertson, and Jay Chiat all had elements of the Glorious Bastard in them. Of these, Oracle (ORCL) founder Larry Ellison is by far the most extreme example. Ellison is known as a huge spawner of talent in the technology field; as Oracle grad and Salesforce.com (CRM) senior executive Steve Garnett said, “I think half of Silicon Valley is run by former Oracle people.”

Top executives who once worked for Ellison include Salesforce.com CEO Marc Benioff, Siebel Systems (SIEB) founder and former CEO Tom Siebel, EMC Corporation’s (EMC) executive vice president Harry You, and veteran tech CEO and board member Mike Seashols. Ellison has been named by BusinessWeek as one of the most competitive people on the planet. As a former senior executive told me: “He enjoys the losing of the other guy. He enjoys it, and that’s kind of sick. . . . It’s who he is. It’s just who he is.” Although Ellison often discussed the importance of chemistry and teamwork, in reality he led more by intimidation. As he himself noted, “I invented my own style of management called MBR. MBR stands for ‘management by ridicule.’ ”

One former Oracle executive described the result of this management style: “I think Larry was excellent at motivating people when it came to articulating the company’s strategy and where he wanted the company to go. But the rest of his motivation was based upon people’s fear and greed.”

Despite Ellison’s hard- driving style, or in some ways perhaps because of it, he had an indisputable knack for boosting people’s careers. Gary Bloom, a longtime Oracle employee who has held senior leadership positions at many top technology companies, remembered: “What ends up happening for a large number of people is they end up in positions within Oracle probably years in advance of where they thought they’d be at that level in their career.”

Most Glorious Bastards are not quite as outrageous as Ellison, but neither do they seem as nice or empathetic as we might wish our bosses to be. The superboss playbook is not about being nice or empathetic. It’s about giving protégés the motivation, guidance, wisdom, creative license, and other elements they need to learn and grow. After all, just because you have a nice boss doesn’t necessarily mean you have a good boss, let alone one who will turbocharge your career. Of course, some superbosses— probably the majority— would never dream of employing MBR. Unlike both Iconoclasts and Glorious Bastards, they truly, deeply care about the success of their protégés and pride themselves on their ability to develop others. These leaders represent a third type of superboss: the benevolent Nurturer.

In using the word nurturer, I mean to sharply distinguish these superbosses from the mentors we usually see in corporate contexts. Most business mentors don’t maintain deep, intense relationships with their younger, less experienced mentees. They may meet occasionally, dispense a few helpful tips, or help a mentee make helpful personal contacts, but that’s about it. Nurturers are what I’d call “activist bosses.” They are consistently present to guide and teach their protégées, and they actively engage with employees to help them reach great heights. Would your typical corporate mentor check in with you at one in the morning to see how your big project is going? A Nurturer would. Would your typical corporate mentor give you the exact feedback you need to hear, when you need to hear it? A Nurturer would. Would your typical mentor sit 10 feet away from you, taking time to comment on the nuances of your work so that you literally learned at the feet of a master? A Nurturer would. It is this intense, sustained effort that allows Nurturers to play such a big part in the success of others. From a talent generation standpoint, Nurturers are not any better than the other two kinds of superbosses on account of their “nice guy” sensibility; all three types of superbosses are extraordinary at spawning talent, and that’s ultimately what counts. Among the primary and secondary superbosses we’ll discuss in this book, many are Nurturers— including Bill Walsh, Michael Miles, Norman Brinker, Tommy Frist, Mary Kay Ash, Gregg Popovich, David Swensen, Jon Stewart, and Archie Norman.

As Brinker once said, “I nurtured people. Over the years, I’ve employed about 1.4 million people and I’ve watched these people grow. Some, who worked in the kitchen, became managers, then store managers, and then executives. There are about seventeen or eighteen heads of major restaurant chains now who worked for me. That’s really thrilling. I never liked having someone leave. But I was excited to see people take the risk and do something successful.”

Reprinted from SUPERBOSSES: How Exceptional Leaders Master the Flow of Talent by Sydney Finkelstein with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Sydney Finkelstein, 2016.