Steve Jobs Was an Arrogant You-Know-What. Jeff Bezos and Larry Ellison Aren't Teddy Bears, Either. Five controversial leaders who are/were polarizing, and why that may have been what made them so successful in the first place.

Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

We all like to fantasize about great leaders being ideal models of humanity in every category: They're strong, smart, noble, calm . . . right?

They're easy to get along with, and, what's more, almost anyone who meets them sees plainly that they're cut out to be great leaders . . . right?

Wrong. In reality, many of the greatest leaders we praise and envy are controversial figures, conjuring up as much ire and resentment as loyalty and admiration. For these reasons, they're polarizing, which is somewhat surprising -- until you realize that this polarization could be part of what made them so successful in the first place.

Related: Why So Many Tech Founders Who Are Jerks Become Insanely Rich and Successful

Let's look at five examples of controversial leaders and how their polarizing practices helped to make them a success:

1. Steve Jobs

There are countless examples of Steve Jobs's dismissive, arrogant and condescending behavior, due in part to his attitude of not caring what other people thought. He would ask flabbergasting personal questions in interviews to intentionally put prospective employees under stress; he would fire people without warning. He had a zero tolerance policy for mistakes and failure.

Though some of these practices led to his getting fired from his own company, he returned to the same culture to help build Apple into the tech powerhouse it is today.

2. Jeff Bezos

The culture Jeff Bezos has created at Amazon has been described by a human resource director there as "purposeful Darwinism," a ruthless policy that demands high performance, and serious consequences if you're lacking. Long hours are expected, mistakes aren't especially well-tolerated and anything that interferes with your productivity -- including personal issues -- will put you into a "performance improvement plan," a euphemism indicating the danger of termination.

Nevertheless, highly competitive and productive people have no problem fitting into the culture, and Amazon has had a long history of success and innovation because of it.

Related: 5 Ways to Reach Entrepreneurial Humility

3. Larry Ellison

One of the richest persons in the world, Oracle founder Larry Ellison had a knack for finding amazing talent, confirmed by the fact that most Oracle executives have gone on to create or manage some of the biggest names in the modern tech industry. Still, Ellison's style irritated a lot of people.

In fact, he's been described as a highly competitive egomaniac, using other people's fear and greed as motivational tools and encouraging internal competition whenever he gets a chance.

4. Andy Grove

The late Andy Grove, onetime CEO of Intel, was kinder than some of the other examples on this list, and was even named TIME magazine's Man of the Year in 1997. Still, he had a controversial leadership style, marked by a quick temper. He would berate people for offenses as small as showing up late for work, and he held all his employees to ridiculously high standards.

He constantly pushed for more, and looked to the future; as a result, he helped build Intel into a juggernaut.

5. Travis Kalanick

Travis Kalanick has caught significant and justified criticism for encouraging an environment of sexism and ruthlessness that nearly caused Uber to crumble after its incredible pace of growth. Still, Kalanick's boldness, brashness and competitiveness were important ingredients in influencing the company's rapid expansion to a $70 billion empire.

During its early years, Kalanick pushed his employees and expanded his company relentlessly; and it was only after public criticism that he was forced to step down. Sexism can't be tolerated in any work culture, but competitiveness and ruthlessness are valuable tools.

Why the best leaders are often polarizing

So why are some of the most successful leaders so polarizing? Here are five reasons illustrated by the examples above:

Specific demands. Polarizing leaders tend to have very specific demands; they have a singular, detailed vision and are fiercely committed to achieving it. Accordingly, they're inflexible and demanding, which can filter out certain types of people who might not fit in with a particular company culture.

Uniqueness. Leaders that push and bend the rules also tend to create controversy, but following all the "right" rules and doing only what's expected leads entrepreneurs to complacency. The uniqueness factor makes controversial entrepreneurs break the mold, distinguish themselves from the competition and make a bigger mark on their respective industries.

High expectations. Entrepreneurs often become polarizing because of their high expectations, as well; they have little-to-no tolerance for failure and demand peak performances from their employees. Accordingly, they tend to drive more innovation and get more done than their competitors.

Passion and loyalty. Fiery, controversial entrepreneurs tend to be more passionate and charismatic, inspiring more loyalty from those team members who stay -- even while their colleaues flee.

Related: Why It Pays to Be a Jerk Like Jeff Bezos

You shouldn't act like a jerk for the sake of acting like a jerk, nor should you intentionally make decisions to inspire resentment. But there are benefits to staying true to your vision and making high demands of your employees -- even if thatmeans ruffling feathers.

Keep this in mind when you're developing your own leadership style, and you, too, may become a polarizing, yet highly influential, leader.

Editor's Pick

Related Topics


7 Reasons Why CEOs Need to Develop a Personal Brand — and How to Build One.

Here's why crafting a captivating personal brand and origin story is pivotal in today's landscape and how these seven tangible advantages can redefine your success as a business leader.


What's the Best Social Media Influencer Option for Your Business?

The success of an entire marketing campaign involving influencers hinges on the meticulous selection of the right social media blogger. Do you know how to choose the right one?

Business Models

A Company With a Conscience — How to Make High-Priced Products Accessible to Working-Class Families

Some products are inherently expensive. Companies can offer leasing programs, financing options and other marketing approaches to make them accessible to working families.


Deepfakes Are Lurking in 2024. Here's How to Navigate the Ever-growing AI Threat Landscape

Can you tell reality from AI? Discover the evolving threat landscape and the global battle against hyper-realistic deception.

Growing a Business

How to Get Your Business Noticed (and How to Brag About It)

Knowing how to go after important recognition awards and then leverage them can have a long-term impact on your business.