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Posts Tagged ‘monkey behavior’

The Madness of Steve Ballmer

Tuesday, September 15th, 2009

The effects of global warming go to the highest levels of power. As things heat up, conditions become more jungle-like. And where there’s jungle, there’s monkey colony behavior, particularly among leaders of countries and companies.

Like displays of physical prowess from alpha warrior monkeys to warn off up-and-coming males.

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Or making a very public display of mating with the most desirable females.

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And then there’s this.

Steve Ballmer and his crazy on-stage monkey dances have attracted a lot of media attention and on-line ridicule.

But when you consider Ballmer’s situation, his approach makes a lot of sense.

Following Up Bill

Taking over from Bill Gates is a difficult follow-up act. There has been a lot of presentation analysis of Gates, usually as a direct comparison to Steve Jobs, focusing on his crowded slides and his Kermit-y vocal tones. I think this criticism missed the point of what Gates was: the king of the developers.

I worked on some of his roadshows in the 90’s, where he’d fly into town and do six or seven hour-long presentations in a day, to wildly differing audiences – clients, staff, government, hard-core coders. Everyone would try to catch him out with some obscure question about code compatibility, and he’d answer all of them with a level of detail that suggested he’d been working on nothing but that issue for the last month, rather than driving a global corporation.

His whole persona underlined the fact that, whatever his motivations, he was brainier than anyone else and that’s a quality you want in a software guy.

Stepping Into the Buzz Aldrin Role

Then in comes Ballmer. He could so easily become a Similar-But-Not-As-Good Guy, like the one that took over from Steve Jobs on the Apple speeches. Whatever his name is.

Rather than going for Gates-Lite, Ballmer has carved out a distinctive entity for himself, by working to his own strengths.

He’s enthusiastic, energetic and outspoken. Rather than try to tone it down like a regular CEO with conservative speech advisors, he’s turned it up to 11.

And he’s a big, dominant-looking guy. If he had a Gates physique, the monkey dance and the teeth-baring would look weird and creepy, like Tom Cruise on the Oprah couch. But the antics really suit Ballmer’s size and shape. His stage moves remind you of a scene from Jungle Book.

Sometimes Mad Is Good

Sometimes the possibility of mild insanity is a good thing in a leader, though Ballmer is clearly less mad than his stage persona. I bet the Microsoft staff appreciate having a fundamentalist warrior at the helm, confiscating audience iPhones and howling threats at the competitors. These are the leaders you follow, because they’re on a mission, and if that involves building a pyramid of competitors’ skulls in the lobby, all the better.

The unpredictability factor also helps keep the audience interest up. Most audiences can tell you what the average CEO will say before they say it. “These are challenging times. We must all work smarter, not harder. We shall be rolling out some exciting new initiatives. We are all one team. Etc.”

Not Steve. Just as decades of audiences went to see Ozzy Osbourne just to see if he’d bite the head off a bat again, Ballmer audiences know they could be just a moment away from an outburst that will melt Youtube’s servers. That’s a big incentive to make people turn up, and pay attention.

And it’s worked. The fact that we even know his name via mainstream media is a major endorsement of his communication strategy.

You go, Ballmer! Ignore the critics and keep it simian!