When leaders just can't get along

Flickr users BUILDWindows and thetaxhaven

(MoneyWatch) First mobile software chief Scott Forstall is ousted from Apple. Now, just a couple of weeks later, Windows president and 23-year Microsoft veteran Steven Sinofsky is abruptly out the door. What gives? Is this a trend? Is it a good thing? Is it a coincidence?

The stories are nearly identical. Two highly effective senior executives with brilliant track records, and yet both share a dark side: They're abrasive and divisive. And it wasn't a single event that caused either executive's demise, but chronic conflicts with their peers and chief executives.

One particular story about a two-day off-site meeting for Microsoft's top brass is particularly striking. Each executive was expected to present a business update to the rest of the management team. When it was Sinofsky's turn, he stood up, referred everyone to his blog, answered questions and then abruptly left the event a day early.

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer must have been furious over the snub. I would have been, too. After all, Sinofsky was in charge of one of the most critical developments in Microsoft's history, Windows 8. And yet he couldn't be bothered to put a pitch together and strategize with his fellow executives for a day or two.

I'm all too familiar with the type (maybe you are, too) -- self-important superstars who think they're special and that the rules don't apply to them. Those personality types are relatively common in the high-tech industry. But business success is all about trade-offs, and all good things come with a price tag.

It's one thing to put up with an abrasive personality that delivers results. It's another thing entirely when that person is openly defiant of his boss. It's also another thing when that person is so disruptive that a fellow executive won't sit in the same room with him, as was reportedly the case between Forstall and Apple's head of industrial design, Jonathan Ive.

All that said, getting rid of a superstar, no matter how divisive or dysfunctional, is far from a slam-dunk decision. Most CEOs and boards put up with the offender until their backs are up against a wall and they're simply left with no choice. There's a very good reason for that. Those kinds of people often produce miracles. And whatever mold made them was probably destroyed in the process. In other words, their replacements aren't likely to measure up.

Which brings us to what I think is a fascinating twist in these twin stories. Both Sinofsky and Forstall were direct disciples of their original CEOs, Bill Gates and Steve Jobs. In his early days at Microsoft, Sinofsky was a technical assistant to Gates. And Forstall, who hails back to NeXT days with Jobs, was sometimes referred to as "mini-Steve." There are several insights to glean from that.

First, Gates and Jobs don't just fit the subject description, they wrote the spec. And having been mentored by those famously caustic and uniquely brilliant leaders, it doesn't take much of a leap to assume that Sinofsky and Forstall saw themselves the same way.

Second, it's entirely possible that the two executives didn't hold the same level of respect for their respective mentors' replacements, Ballmer and Tim Cook. Media stories that they openly defied their bosses certainly back up that theory.

Third, it's a good thing that Gates and Jobs were entrepreneurs who founded their own companies because, had they been executives in other people's companies, they might very well have self-destructed in much the same way it appears that Sinofsky and Forstall did. Actually, that more or less happened to Jobs when he was ousted from Apple in 1985.

If you spend enough time in Silicon Valley, Redmond, Wash., or other high-tech meccas, you will inevitably come across a number of entrepreneurs and executives that can handily be classified as brilliant, but who have a dark side. Some think they're special because they are; others become special because they think they are. It's not often easy to tell the difference between the two, and I'm not even sure it matters.

The bigger challenge for leaders and managers of those "special" people is not to diminish their dark side, as you might think, but to keep the two sides in balance. Why? Because they reinforce each other. They're two sides of the same coin. And don't think for a minute that those people are all that different from you and me. It's a human condition we all share, albeit to varying degrees.

As for that ultimate decision -- whether to cut them loose or not -- it always comes down to the same thing. It's a trade-off. Are the benefits worth all the strife? In most cases, a Cook or a Ballmer explores that trade-off every time one of their special executives causes problems.  And when the strife outweighs the benefits, that's when it's time to part ways. One thing's for sure, that decision is never made lightly.  

Images courtesy of Flickr users BUILDWindows and thetaxhaven