Reed Hastings

LinkedIn’s wall is degenerating fast. It used to focus on careers and business discussions. Now it’s becoming Facebook, complete with people playing games and inspirational quote posters.

For example, I recently came across this poster of Reed Hastings, who built a mighty empire in Netflix, but who could have used more brilliant jerks to challenge his more dubious decisions:

Now if the “brilliant jerk” is a bully who smells like cat food, harasses others, and doesn’t do his job, I can agree with giving him the heave-ho. But that’s not about “teamwork” — that’s about avoiding lawsuits and improving office hygiene.

If the brilliant jerk is someone who simply questions the answers and rejects the status quo, by all means, he should not only be kept, he should be rewarded.

Keep in mind that the opposite of a brilliant jerk is a mediocre team player, the person who nods in assent to everything. They’re useful for getting tedious jobs done, like filling out TPS reports. They can also be found easily — indeed, corporations are using outsourcing services in India where mediocre team players cost a lot less.

People with ideas and visions are truly rare and valuable. As advertising legend David Ogilvy once said, “There are very few men of genius in advertising agencies. But we need all we can find. Almost without exception they are disagreeable. Don’t destroy them. They lay golden eggs.”

Note that, with Netflix, Hastings has simply built a better vending machine. Whenever Netflix needs anything creative — whether it’s an original series or a fix for their recommendation engine — Hastings has to look outside his company. What kind of people does he think create all those Hollywood movies and TV shows?

Teamwork Is Overrated

In a seminal New York Times article from 2012, “The Rise of the New Groupthink,” researcher Susan Cain wrote about introverts and their need for solitude and quiet time. Not all smart people function well in teams. They just want to be given an assignment and left alone to get the job done:

“Research strongly suggests that people are more creative when they enjoy privacy and freedom from interruption. And the most spectacularly creative people in many fields are often introverted, according to studies by the psychologists Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Gregory Feist. They’re extroverted enough to exchange and advance ideas, but see themselves as independent and individualistic. They’re not joiners by nature.”

Guess what happens when you force these creative introverts into continuous teamwork — particularly with mediocre yes-men. Some withdraw even further. Others become (you guessed it) brilliant jerks. I see it when I assign students to work in teams. Some of the smartest minds don’t play that way.

Consider Apple (which Cain also cites): neither Steve Jobs nor Steve Wozniak was a team player. Jobs was a domineering extrovert. Wozniak was an eccentric introvert. Both could be classified as “brilliant jerks.” I guess Hastings would have fired both of them.

“Brilliant jerks” often become entrepreneurs because they can finally try things their way without being forced into teamwork. I can think of one such entrepreneur who Cain doesn’t mention in her article. Listen to him explain why he quit officer training school in the Marines:

“I found myself questioning how we packed our backpacks and how we made our beds… My questioning wasn’t particularly encouraged, and I realized I might be better off in the Peace Corps.”

His name? Reed Hastings.

The Full Netflix Value Statement

Now, that quote you see in the poster above is actually a paraphrase of one slide from Netflix’s Culture presentation. (See below.)

People who are liking and sharing the Hasting’s “brilliant jerks” poster in social media need to read the rest of this presentation. They’ll notice that while Netflix talks a lot about teamwork, it also places “Courage” as one of its top values, including the mandates, “You say what you think even if it is controversial” and “You question actions inconsistent with our values.”

A few slides later, the presentation notes that, “Sustained B-level performance, despite ‘A for effort’, generates a generous severance package.” Netflix wants “stars at every position.”

Netflix also expects “Innovation” from its workers, and abhors a “Process-focus [that] drives more talent out,” resulting in a company that “grinds painfully into irrelevance.”

So there you have it: not a simple aphorism in a poster, but a 126-slide presentation that says what Netflix wants. It’s not a prescription for anyone else (indeed, I can’t see most companies pulling this off, unless they also want to offer Netflix-level salaries and Netflix-level freedoms).

In short, Netflix wants only stars who are passionate and courageous and innovative and always do A-level work while abhorring process and questioning assumptions yet working as a team — otherwise they get fired.

Sounds brilliant. And jerky.








  • Hi Freddy, those Reed Hastings posters got under my skin as well. I was actually going to blog about the same thing but you covered this way more thoroughly than I was going to! Thanks for the read!

  • Excellent, one of your best. And I’d like to see that Susan Cain quote get much wider dissemination.

    Contrasting the misleading, unhelpful poster with the full value statement slideshow was a brilliant closer. Thanks, Freddy, well done!

    • Thanks, Mark. I totally agree with you about the Cain quote. All we ever hear while growing up is “be yourself” and “follow your dreams,” but as soon as we hit the marketplace, companies are force fitting people onto teams.

      Yes, some businesses rely on teamwork and thrive on teamwork. But there are business models for everyone, and people who think one size fits all are the ones who are offensive.

  • Thanks for this article Freddy –

    I think what we’re seeing is the erosion of this idiot notion of “bifurcation” of ourselves. The @LinkedIn “team player” who happily acquiesces to the prevailing order – out of fear no less. And the dissenting @Facebook critical thinker. We/they could no longer keep the two worlds apart – no matter the marginalization algorithms, filter bubbles, and echo chambers they’ve erected. People will be people. And our world is fast becoming blended, merged, and extremely complicated.

    Critical thinking and empathetic courage are not valued in the capitalist, corporate organizations. Pandering to the status quo is.

  • I consider myself a brilliant jerk and I don’t wannt to get fired, so I’ll flame this blog.

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