Many disruptive leaders not only radically transform businesses but are known to also push the boundaries of what is generally considered to be ethically and legally correct in order to achieve those goals. While the course of history has shown that yesterday’s moral frameworks are often swept aside by the next generation’s view of what is right and ethical, laws can remain in effect for many decades or longer.
The truth is, remarkable people – like great disruptors – are usually remarkably flawed. Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, Elon Musk – there’s a long list of exceptional business disruptors who didn’t believe the rules applied to them.
Steve Jobs is a case in point. Not only did he accomplish extraordinary things because he was extraordinarily talented, but also because he believed he was special. That belief was at the core of his much talked about reality distortion field. Jobs didn’t think the rules applied to him. That also explains why he so often skirted ethical, legal, and societal boundaries.
Among other things, there were a number of court cases brought against Jobs, including one in which Apple together with a number of other technology companies was involved in an employee anti-poaching conspiracy.
While several embarrassing and damning emails between Jobs and his counterparts were used in evidence, no criminal charges were brought against any of the executives. Agreements to avoid poaching each other’s employees may be antitrust worthy, but they weren’t the result of criminal behavior.
There was also the e-book price-fixing conspiracy in which Apple and six large literary publishers planned to fix prices and break Amazon’s stranglehold on the e-book market. In many ways what Apple was trying to do was quite laudable given the monopoly Amazon had created so quickly.
Unfortunately, Apple lost the case.
But other CEOs not as prodigiously gifted as Steve Jobs have thoughtlessly pushed the envelope too far and have subsequently fallen from grace or worse. Travis Kalanick, the former CEO of Uber, is a high-profile example of a disruptive leader whose success and ego blinded him to the necessity of building a culture of accountability and ethics and adhere to local and state employment laws.
The company was sued, investors left in droves and many municipalities threatened to cancel their licenses. The problems were further compounded when competitors, especially Lyft, took advantage of the company’s situation and handily took away market share.