Invitation to a Beheading

Some blog posts give us a glimpse of our own obituary. When a Seattle journalist last week speculated on what went wrong at a startup, an anonymous mob formed to attack the CEO, comment by comment. It was hard not to feel like you were watching your own beheading.

No one objected. And almost everyone in Seattle read the post. As a French courtier observed, “the people we call our friends are merely the ones we know would not themselves murder us, but would let the murderers have their way.”

The CEO in question was undoubtedly a hard-charging Maniac. But that’s not always bad. I tend to divide leaders into two types: The Maniac and The Professional. The Maniac is emotional, demanding, unreasonable. His great gift is high standards. He gets away with it only by being brilliant and charming.

I once interviewed someone managed by the most brilliant, charming business leader in the world: Steve Jobs. The experience was, the interviewee explained in a thick French accent, “the most harrowing of my life.”

Maybe it’s impossible to accomplish anything insanely great without a Maniac — anyone running a start-up team has to have, at the least, the glands of a Maniac. But anyone with a heart spends nights regretting it.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, plenty of leaders try to be like Steve Jobs and no one else can be. A lot of startups blow up because of the Steve Jobs syndrome.

Lately, I’ve found a second role model: the manager at the Capitol Hill QFC. Unassuming, a little pink in the skin, slightly rotund, the guy who runs my neighborhood grocery store is the portrait of The Professional. He’s a far cry from Steve Jobs, but his admirable qualities at least seem repeatable. I’ve studied them carefully:

  1. He’s accessible. On any busy weekend, he’s standing at the head of the registers, ready to direct a customer to a can of beans. He carries a clipboard, which he tucks under his arm as soon as you approach (what does he have written down there?)
  2. He shops in his own store, loading up in the frozen food aisle late at night, joking around with the graveyard employees stocking the shelves. Straining to hear their conversation, I once saw one of them — probably earning less than $10 an hour — give him a hug.
  3. He’s a part of the team. He wears the QFC outfit with pride, his grocer’s tie nicely knotted. Though he’s not very tall, his posture is so straight he almost seems to be leaning back, as if better to survey a Thackeravian bustle of commerce. He doesn’t stand apart from his team, except by how he carries himself.
  4. He smiles a lot, almost as a form of breathing.  Since I believe that a company’s brand, like a painting or a poem, is essentially just an emotion sustained across time and between people — his smile is important to me; at some level, one of the emotions expressed by a brand has to be a form of joy. It starts at the top, and it can’t be faked.
  5. He works hard. Late at night and on weekends, he’s always there.

I know it’s uncool to have a grocer as a role model alongside a tech god, but a lot of high-tech managers, myself included, could learn a lot from Mr. QFC.


  • Selly


    Your appreciation for the necessity for a touch of the crazy is appreciated. We entrepreneurs walk that tough line between crazy-dedicated and work-horses. James Hong (founder of HotOrNot) and I had coffee a few months ago and I thought he put it terrifically–”Founding a company is committing yourself to years of self-inflicted bipolar disorder”.

    You have to listen to the constant barrage of nay-sayers, straining to hear that one nugget of valuable constructive criticism. The CEO’s who listen and the CEO’s who don’t are both emotionally exhausted at the end of the day, but those that manage to hear the gem of wisdom are heralded as geniuses, those that miss it are maniacal crazies.

    One of my favorite lines [Gold Five, Star Wars IV]: “Stay on Target. Stay on Target.” Seems like a good idea until he blows into smitherines.

    For the CEO of a start-up the difference is subtle, the outcome is similarly absolutely unforgiving.

    To the above-referenced CEO, my former manager @ the ‘Zon, I’m sorry to see this happen–keep your head up, find the nugget of wisdom in the story and keep moving on.


  • meks

    Can somebody please point us to the article/post mentioned above?

  • Glenn Kelman

    @Meks: you can find it on John Cook’s blog, but it had seemed unkind to link to it.

    Hey Selly! thanks for offering your old Amazon manager some encouragement. Maybe that French courtier wasn’t entirely right…