It's hard to like Peter Thiel. Among other things, the PayPal cofounder, venture capitalist and smiling Silicon Valley provocateur gleefully wrecked Gawker by bankrolling a ruinous Hulk Hogan lawsuit, claims he can stop aging by getting blood transfusions from twentysomethings, and in an interview with the New York Times actually said, "There's a point where no corruption can be a bad thing. It can mean that things are too boring."

Wow. There can't be much Thiel could teach us about leadership, right?

Not so fast. Shoulder your way past moldy conventional wisdom about leaders and it turns out that the greats--the geniuses who don't just move the needle but bury it--are often the same obnoxious pains in the ass who trigger us to punch walls or blurt profanities that would embarrass a 20-year Navy man.

 Steve Jobs was a tyrannical control freak. Mark Cuban is arrogance in human form. They (and others like them) changed the world because they didn't shy away from the qualities that made them insufferable boors or awkward social outcasts in other settings: obsessive neuroticism, a short fuse, or being just plain weird. They leaned into those traits and used them to defy their detractors and do what nobody else would even try.

Now that you mention it, that actually does sound like Peter Thiel. In fact, some of his most "WTF?" moves have also been textbook examples of some of the infuriating traits that also make great leaders great. Here are three:

1. Impatience.

Treatment-resistant clinical depression is life-threatening, but Thiel's COMPASS Pathways is investing $5 million in a project that will try to treat depression with magic mushrooms. Yep, if Thiel has his way your doc might prescribe shrooming to remove your brain's dark clouds. Never mind that the evidence for psilocybin (the compound that fills your head with flowers) is scant. Thiel's ready to move now. That's smart. Leaders know that while good things might come to those who wait, innovations come to those who stick their necks out and risk losing their heads. 

2. Death anxiety.

Thiel has described death as something he would "prefer to fight" and evolution as something society should "transcend." Wow, he's Voldemort! But seriously, high-flyers like Jobs and MIT's Ray Kurzweil often see mortality as an insult--a remorseless limit to what they can achieve. That's why Thiel has famously championed the ghoulish-sounding process of parabiosis: transfusing the blood of young people into his own body, a process that's actually being studied around the world. From his comments on the subject, he's clearly terrified of death, but so what? Nobody's thrilled about it. But great leaders channel that fear to break barriers and taboos.

3. Contempt for norms.

That college degree is important, right? Not to Thiel. His Thiel Fellowship pays promising minds $100,000 to quit college for two years to do other work. Crazy? Ask guys like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who also bailed on a degree. Flipping a middle finger to the idea of finishing school is textbook Thiel, but it's also another thing he has in common with great innovators, who reject "it's always been done this way" thinking in favor of breaking things to see how they can be put back together.  

Still dislike Peter Thiel? Understanding what motivates him can turn some of his most infuriating qualities into the qualities of great leadership.   

Published on: Dec 18, 2017
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