October 4, 2023


education gives you strength

How Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Vince Lombardi Embraced Rule of Formidable Expectations

In the early days of Microsoft, Bill Gates was notoriously tough on his employees. Not only did he memorize license plates so he could tell who was still at work, he made a habit of sending 2 a.m. emails that started with, “This is the stupidest piece of code ever written.”

Steve Jobs could be an even tougher boss. According to one former employee: “Steve, like Napoleon, had two faces. On one side he was a brilliant genius and a true misfit. And the other side–his lack of care and sensitivity for people, his disrespect and dictatorial behavior–were all real.”

Then there’s Vince Lombardi, the Pro Football Hall of Fame coach for whom the Super Bowl trophy is named. Hall of Fame lineman Jerry Kramer said of Lombardi, “He shouted, bullied, drove us, underpaid us and refused to spoil us.” Henry Jordan, another Hall of Famer, famously said, “He treats us all the same–like dogs.”

Jerks, one and all? Maybe.

But then again, Gates built Microsoft. Jobs built Apple. Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers won five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls.

More importantly, many people reflect fondly on the time they spent working with Jobs, Gates, and Lombardi. The experience taught them to prepare. To think critically. To work harder, work smarter, and put their teams ahead of themselves.

Does that mean the end always justifies the means?

But it does illustrate the rule of formidable expectations.

The rule of formidable expectations is simple: The more you expect–OK, demand–from others, the more gratitude you must display for their effort, dedication, and loyalty. 

Pay is Not Gratitude

Unfortunately, most bosses focus solely on the demand side. That’s understandable. For one thing, we’re all taught that great outcomes always spring from great expectations; the only way to get more is to require more.

Another reason is illustrated by a classic Mad Men scene. Peggy is upset that Don got credit for one of her ideas. 

“But you got the Clio,” she says, referring to an advertising award.

“It’s your job,” Don says. “I give you money, you give me ideas.”

“And you never say, thank you,” Peggy says. 

“That’s what the money is for!” Don replies.

Don is right. And also wrong. Pay is a simple exchange of money for effort. Pay is not a reward. Pay is not appreciation. Pay is not praise. Pay is not gratitude.

Higher pay can help offset higher expectations, but only to a point. That’s when gratitude kicks in.

Gratitude isn’t just an occasional, “Thank you,” or a few words of praise, though. Gratitude is also providing developmental opportunities. Facilitating new connections. Teaching new skills. Mentoring, motivating, and providing a sense of purpose that turns work into something much more meaningful.

In short, gratitude is ensuring that someday your employees will look back and be grateful that you demanded so much–because they also received more in return. The more you expect, the more gratitude you must not only feel but provide. If you want more, you have to give more. Not in terms of money, but in terms of yourself.

Granted, Gates, Jobs, and Lombardi might not have embraced the rule of formidable expectations. They may have wanted more simply because they wanted more, and it’s possible the career development, stock options, and Super Bowl wins were enough to keep their employees going.  

But I’m guessing they did, as evidenced by all the Microsoft and Apple employees who went on to greater career heights or to start their own successful companies. And by all the ex-Packers who went on to successful business careers.

If you want to build a better company or organization–if you have incredibly high goals for yourself, your business, and the people you employ–you must embrace the rule of formidable expectations.

Do that, and then you all can get as much as you give. No matter how formidable the expectations.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.

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