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What do Kim Jong Il and Steve Ballmer have in common?

June 16, 2011

Sandeep Baliga wrote a blog post on what it takes to be a great CEO, which implied enthusiasm and the ability to keep cynics in line are highly important. I have a different take on the exchange – that of a personality cult and collectively acknoledged lies.

This may or may not surprise you, but Kim Jong Il is the greatest golfer ever to walk the planet Earth. He shot a 38 under par the first time he played and all of his bodyguard swear they saw him do it. In the second video in the Cheap Talk post, a worker talks about he was fired for not saying “Bing!” with sufficient enthusiasm. Steve Ballmer tells his workers that Bing is a better search engine than Google, because it is more fun to say. Such a claim is absurd. However, for a worker to say that to the CEO of Microsoft is like telling Kim Jong Il that he sucks at golf.

Let’s assume workers have two traits: smarts and enthusiasm. Enthusiastic workers want to support their CEO and are willing to say silly things to do so. Smart workers know game theory.

Stupid and enthusiastic workers will always say “Bing!”
Stupid and unenthusiastic will not say “Bing!”, not realizing that will get them fired.
Smart and enthusiastic workers have no reason not to say “Bing!”.
Smart and unenthusiastic workers don’t want to look stupid and get fired, so they say “Bing!”

So if a worker does not say “Bing!”, they must be both stupid and unenthusiastic. Not good traits for a worker to have, so they are fired. There is a downside. By coming down so hard on critics, both leaders risk creating an atmosphere where everything the manager says is agreed with wholeheartedly. The resultant groupthink can cripple an organization.

More on Cults of Personality

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