(Autistic) visionaries are not natural-born leaders

by guzey9 min read26th Jan 202145 comments

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Leadership
Frontpage

This is a linkpost for https://guzey.com/autistic-leaders/. I figured readers of EA Forum would enjoy it because I suspect that lots of people here think that people like Elon Musk, Larry Page, and Steve Jobs were destined to lead (like I did in the past). I no longer think this is true and this has implications for those who would like to build an organization but are hesitant because they don't feel like they're natural leaders.

Update on the word "(Autistic)" in the title: I'm not aware of any of the people I discuss in the post being diagnosed with any autism spectrum disorders. However, it does seem to me that they all exhibited a host of traits associated with autism spectrum disorders. I settled on using the word because it's used to refer to people who exhibit such traits (Merriam Webster: "of, relating to, or marked by autism or autism spectrum disorder") and it's important for the point I'm making in the post (despite exhibiting those traits they managed to become great leaders) but putting it in parentheses to make it clear that I'm not making a claim about diagnoses.


  • "Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were two young dudes without any experience at running a business who just started building computers in a garage and ended up turning Apple into a giant company"
  • "Elon Musk started Zip2 straight out of college and without any experience at running a business and turned it into a company that was sold for $300m just 3 years later"
  • "Larry Page and Sergey Brin were two CS grad students without any experience at running a business who hit on a great idea and ended up turning Google into a giant company. VCs made them hire Schmidt as the CEO of Google but Larry and Sergey were doing great by themselves"

These narratives create the impression that all the people mentioned above are not just visionaries who changed the world but that they were also natural-born leaders who magically knew how to run a company right from the moment of birth all by themselves and without help from anyone else.

In fact, they were all terrible at running a company and managing people when they were starting out. Had they been discouraged by the fact that they were terrible leaders who had no idea how to run a company or had they tried to do it all by themselves and without plenty of adult supervision, they would've probably never done anything of substance.

Steve Jobs

Mike Markkula (an engineer and marketing manager from Intel) hired all the key experienced talent that ran Apple (Berlin L. Troublemakers: Silicon Valley's Coming of Age. Simon and Schuster; 2017 Nov 7.):

Steve Jobs had great potential as an evangelist, Markkula could tell. But reaching the size and scale that Markkula anticipated for Apple would require much more than the passion and charisma of a starry-eyed twenty-one-year-old. Apple would need a marketing expert who understood logistics and how to coordinate planning, forecasting, sales, and customer service; someone who could bridge the needs of middle-class suburban families to the tinkerings of Wozniak, Jobs, and the hippies at Homebrew. Markkula knew the perfect person for the job: himself. “I knew there was not another person who had the foggiest idea how to market a personal computer,” he says. ...

Markkula joined Apple as chairman of the board and head of marketing. Jobs and Wozniak were happy to have him in charge. They had known since the moment they had formed their partnership that they would benefit from the assistance of someone with more business experience. As Jobs later explained (a bit confusingly, since Markkula’s money was the only money being offered to Apple), “We didn’t necessarily want Markkula’s money—we wanted Markkula.” Jobs added, “Woz and I decided we’d rather have 50 percent of something than all of nothing.” Without Markkula, there would have been no company.

Markkula began recruiting. His first offer was to Mike Scott, one of the two men with whom he had shared the closet-sized office at Fairchild. Markkula and Scott shared a birthday, February 11, and every year had lunch to celebrate. Markkula had followed Scott’s career since leaving Fairchild for Intel. In 1972, Scott had moved to National Semiconductor to work for the third Fairchild office mate, Gene Carter, as a marketing manager. Scott was then promoted to direct hybrid operations, a job in which he oversaw every aspect of the hybrid circuits business, including manufacturing. ...

Scott and Carter, along with Markkula—three men in their mid- to late thirties who had spent the past dozen years as middle managers in semiconductor companies—formed the core of Apple’s earliest business operations. Joining them was a CFO, Ken Zerbe, hired from another semiconductor firm, American Microsystems. Most histories of Apple focus on the young, long-haired, Levi’s-wearing technologists who worked with Jobs and Wozniak and looked so different from the typical buttoned-up, IBM-type technology worker of the 1970s. But in many ways, Markkula’s task was to make Apple an exemplary technology company according to the “typical” measures. It needed to be profitable, manufacture reliable products in predictable volumes, and deliver them through stable sales distribution channels. Markkula looked to managers whom he knew and trusted in the semiconductor industry to make that happen. “We all knew the semiconductor business inside out and backwards,” he explains. They had already worked through manufacturing disasters, supply problems, failed processes, and design glitches.

Jobs had no idea about anything business-related:

Standing in Jobs’s garage, Markkula knew that Wozniak’s Apple II computer was a magnificent answer to the hopes of anyone who had ever longed to own a machine. What he did not know, however, was whether a company could be built around that machine. He gave Jobs and Wozniak the same advice that he had shared with other aspiring entrepreneurs: write a business plan. Figure out your supply costs, the size of the market, the distribution paths. He thinks he even suggested that since it was impossible to estimate the potential size of a nonexistent market (for personal computers), the number of telephones in US households might provide a good starting point.

Over the coming weeks, as the autumn weather crisped, Jobs (and occasionally Wozniak) would drive to Markkula’s new house, a larger home a few blocks from his old one. The young men met Markkula in the small cabana he had built in his backyard near the pool. Wozniak was wowed: “He had a beautiful house in the hills overlooking the lights of Cupertino, this gorgeous view, amazing wife, the whole package.” At the end of every meeting, Markkula assigned homework: think through who the competition might be, what a reasonable profit might be, how you might staff the company, how fast you would want it to grow. Each of those factors would form a component of the plan that would tell Jobs and Wozniak if they could build a viable business.

Every meeting, Jobs returned without having done the work.

As the weeks passed, Markkula realized that Jobs and Wozniak were never going to write a business plan. How could they? Wozniak had his job at Hewlett-Packard and no interest in starting a company. Had it been up to him, he would have given away his computer designs or sold them at cost. Jobs was ferociously interested in launching a business, but in the fall of 1976, that meant trying to deliver the boards that the Byte Shop had ordered and then using that income to buy supplies to build more boards. Twenty-one years old and with fifteen months’ experience in the corporate world (all of it working for Atari as a technician), Jobs could not have known how to answer the questions and make the estimates that Markkula requested. ...

Wozniak (a) says Markkula was more important than either him or Jobs:

I get more mention than I deserve. For some reason I get this key position of being one of two people that started the company that started the revolution. Steve and I get a lot of credit, but Mike Markkula was probably more responsible for our early success, and you never hear about him. In the end, I hope there’s a little note somewhere that says I designed a good computer. I’m just kind of amazed how many people say, “We owe so much to you.” They just better not act like I wasn’t a top engineer. That would upset me.

Elon Musk

Musk notes (a) that "Ashlee Vance's biography is mostly correct, but also rife with errors & never independently fact-checked, despite my request that he do so", so I'm only highlighting the bit where Vance quotes Musk directly:

Years later, after he had time to reflect on the Zip2 situation, Musk realized that he could have handled some of the situations with employees better. “I had never really run a team of any sort before,” Musk said. “I’d never been a sports captain or a captain of anything or managed a single person. I had to think, Okay, what are the things that affect how a team functions. The first obvious assumption would be that other people will behave like you. But that’s not true. Even if they would like to behave like you, they don’t necessarily have all the assumptions or information that you have in your mind. So, if I know a certain set of things, and I talk to a replica of myself but only communicate half the information, you can’t expect that the replica would come to the same conclusion. You have to put yourself in a position where you say, ‘Well, how would this sound to them, knowing what they know?’”

Employees at Zip2 would go home at night, come back, and find that Musk had changed their work without talking to them, and Musk’s confrontational style did more harm than good. “Yeah, we had some very good software engineers at Zip2, but I mean, I could code way better than them. And I’d just go in and fix their fucking code,” Musk said. “I would be frustrated waiting for their stuff, so I’m going to go and fix your code and now it runs five times faster, you idiot. There was one guy who wrote a quantum mechanics equation, a quantum probability on the board, and he got it wrong. I’m like, ‘How can you write that?’ Then I corrected it for him. He hated me after that. Eventually, I realized, Okay, I might have fixed that thing but now I’ve made the person unproductive. It just wasn’t a good way to go about things.”

Larry Page

In 2001, Larry Page tried to cancel project managers at Google. The Untold Story Of Larry Page's Incredible Comeback (a):

By July 2001, BackRub had been renamed Google and was doing really well. It had millions of users, an impressive list of investors, and 400 employees, including about a half-dozen project managers.

As at most startups, in Google’s first year there were no management layers between the CEO, Page, and the engineers. But as the company grew, it added a layer of managers, people who could meet with Page and the rest of Google’s senior executives and give the engineers prioritized orders and deadlines.

Page, now 28, hated it. Since Google hired only the most talented engineers, he thought that extra layer of supervision was not just unnecessary but also an impediment. He also suspected that Google’s project managers were steering engineers away from working on projects that were personally important to him. For example, Page had outlined a plan to scan all the world’s books and make them searchable online, but somehow no one was working on it. Page blamed the project managers.

Some dramatic streamlining was called for, he resolved. Instead of the project managers, all of Google’s engineers would report to one person, a newly hired VP of engineering named Wayne Rosing, and Rosing would report directly to him.

Google’s human resources boss, a serious woman with bangs named Stacey Sullivan, thought Page’s plan was nuts, according to “I'm Feeling Lucky,” Douglas Edwards' inside view of Google's early years. Sullivan told Page so. “You can’t just self-organize!” she said. “People need someone to go to when they have problems!”

Page ignored her.

Sullivan took her concerns to Eric Schmidt. In March, Schmidt had become the chairman of Google. Everyone assumed he’d be CEO as soon as he could leave his full-time job as CEO of Novell.

Schmidt agreed with Sullivan. So did Page’s executive coach, Bill Campbell. Everyone called Campbell “Coach” because he’d once been Columbia University's football coach. He still walked and talked like he was pacing a sideline.

As Steven Levy detailed in his own rollicking Google history, “In the Plex,” one evening, Campbell got into a big argument with Page about his plan. To prove his point, Campbell brought engineer after engineer into Page’s office to offer their perspective. One after another, they told Page that they actually preferred to have a manager — someone who could end disagreements and give their teams direction.

But Page was determined.

Schmidt in particular may have been the worst person for Sullivan to turn to for help back then. Page had never been behind hiring him — or any CEO, for that matter. Google’s investors made him do it.

Before long, Schmidt might have presented an obstacle to Page’s plan. But not yet. It was July 2001 and Schmidt hadn’t officially become CEO. So Page went ahead.

He deputized Rosing to break the news.

That afternoon, all 130 or so engineers and a half-dozen project managers showed up. They stood outside Page’s office amid Google’s mismatched cubicles and couches — which, like the rest of the company’s office furniture, had been bought from failed startups on the cheap.

Finally, Rosing, a bald man in glasses, began to speak. Rosing explained that engineering was getting a reorganization: All engineers would now report to him, all project managers were out of a job.

The news did not go over well. The project managers were stunned. They hadn’t been warned. They’d just been fired in front of all their colleagues.

The engineers demanded an explanation. So Page gave one. With little emotion, speaking in his usual flat, robotic tone, he explained that he didn’t like having non-engineers supervising engineers. Engineers shouldn't have to be supervised by managers with limited tech knowledge. Finally, he said, Google’s project managers just weren’t doing a very good job.

As Page talked, he kept his gaze averted, resisting direct eye contact. Though he was an appealing presence with above-average height and nearly black hair, he was socially awkward.

The news was met with a chorus of grumbling. Finally, one of the engineers in the room, Ron Dolin, started yelling at Page. He said an all-hands meeting was no place to give a performance review. What Page was doing was “completely ridiculous,” he said, and “totally unprofessional.”

“It sucked,” one of the project managers present said later. “I felt humiliated by it. Larry said in front of the company that we didn't need managers, and he talked about what he didn't like about us. He said things that hurt a lot of people.”

In the end, the layoffs didn’t stick. The project managers Page had intended to fire that day were instead brought into Google’s growing operations organization, under the leadership of Urs Hözle.

Page’s reorganization didn’t last long either. While some engineers thrived without supervision, problems arose. Projects that needed resources didn’t get them. Redundancy became an issue. Engineers craved feedback and wondered where their careers were headed.

Eventually, Google started hiring project managers again.

“I did my best to advise that there is true value in management, and you can set a tone by how you manage this,” Stacy Sullivan recalled in “I'm Feeling Lucky.” “Hopefully it was a lesson learned for Larry.”

By August 2001, Schmidt had fully extricated himself from his responsibilities at Novell. He became Google’s CEO — so-called adult supervision for Page and his co-founder, Brin.

And for a long time, Larry Page was very unhappy.

Page and Jobs:

Everyone knows the Steve Jobs story — how he was fired from the company he founded — Apple — only to return from exile decades later to save the business.

What’s less-well understood is that Apple’s board and investors were absolutely right to fire Jobs. Early in his career, he was petulant, mean, and destructive. Only by leaving Apple, humbling himself, and finding a second success (with Pixar) was he able to mature into the leader who would return to

Apple and build it into the world’s most-valuable company.

Larry Page is the Steve Jobs of Google.

Like Jobs, Page has a co-founder, Sergey Brin, but Page has always been his company’s true visionary and driving force.

And just as Apple’s investors threw Jobs out of his company, Google’s investors ignored Page’s wishes and forced him to hire a CEO to be adult supervision.

Both then underwent a long period in the wilderness. Steve Jobs’ banishment was more severe, but Page also spent years at a remove from the day-to-day world of Google.

As with Jobs, it was only through this long exile that Page was able to mature into a self-awareness of his strengths and weaknesses.

Then, like Jobs, Page came back with wild ambitions and a new resolve. ...

Schmidt's adult supervision:

Over the next several years, Google grew into a massive global business.

Always in consultation with Page and Brin, Schmidt kept things on an even keel. He hired a team of executives, built a sales force, and took Google public. ...

During Google’s earnings call on Jan. 20, 2011, Schmidt announced he was done as CEO. The job was once again Larry Page’s.

Schmidt, who would become executive chairman, sent out a tweet later that day: “Adult-supervision no longer needed.”

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45 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:40 PM
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Thanks for writing this. I feel like it's written with an implication of something like "you can be bad at management but eventually learn", but I think another theory is something more like "you can win the lottery without being good at math".

E.g. a common explanation for the success of the PayPal mafia is that they became rich when everyone else in tech became poor, and were therefore able to purchase stakes in a bunch of companies and then just join the most successful or otherwise get an "unfair" advantage. This seems roughly true of Musk, as I understand it.

Another interpretation is something like "executive people management either doesn't matter, or matters in a way substantially different from how people usually think it should matter." Successful executives have a wide range of approaches (including, as you point out, some which seem intuitively terrible), and one interpretation of this is that your approach actually doesn't matter very much. I've remarked before that there seemed to be surprisingly few robustly good management practices.

I'm curious whether you have opinions about which of these interpretations are correct, or if there's something else you take away from these stories?

I browsed through this writeup and it's a comforting reminder that these 3 leaders/visionaries were not natural-born leaders. 

I have a minor comment on the title though. I did a quick Google search, and there's no definitive source saying that Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, or Larry Page are autistic. So I find the "(autistic)" part in the title unhelpful and misleading. The URL of your blog post also implies that all three of them are autistic, when none of them are definitively so. What made you choose this title? Would you consider changing it, such as to "Visionaries who are not natural-born leaders"?

Mr. Musk, known for his awkwardness at times, also said he was the first person with Asperger’s syndrome to host the show—“or at least the first to admit it.” - WSJ

Asperger's is basically mild autism.

To be fair to Brian, this appears to be the first explicit confirmation by Musk that he has Asperger's (even though I and many others suspected that this is the case).

Yes I would consider this a correct prediction by you - though I think most other people would made the same prediction and considered it pretty obvious.

In general on this forum we seek to encourage people to adopt a 'Scout Mindset':

"The drive not to make one idea win or another lose, but to see what's there as honestly and accurately as you can."

Clarity about what you believe, your reasons for believing it, and what would cause you to change your mind.

Note that this does not require you to have 'definitive' proof of something. This would be an unreasonable standard in general, but especially so here, because even if these individuals had been diagnosed (which many autists are not), there is no particular reason to expect them to have shared the diagnosis publicly!

Instead, calling them autistic represents a reasonable summary of Guzey's views, and is I think a pretty reasonable position. I think if you showed the average person some videos of early Musk or Page (before they got coaching) they would agree the behavior was pretty autistic. This has been often remarked upon - e.g. here.

What's more, this is important to Guzey's point. He is not claiming that all visionaries are poor leaders, so your suggested edit would be inaccurate. He is specifically claiming that one type of visionary makes a poor leader, so the qualification is important.

Hi Dale, I agree that we should encourage people here to adopt a scout mindset, and I also agree that this does not require you to have definitive proof of something.

My view on whether Jobs, Musk, or Page are actually autistic are in flux as I read other's comments here, like yours, and read more about others' views on them online. I'm not that familiar with autism/Asperger's, but initially I thought that at least 2/3 of them are not autistic. So it's interesting for me to learn that a couple other people on this forum like you agree that there's good evidence of them being autistic / having Asperger's.

Anyway, in what you quoted, we want people to write with "Clarity about what you believe, your reasons for believing it, and what would cause you to change your mind."

Given that, I just wish that Guzey would have put a caveat near the top of his article that there's no authoritative source saying that these leaders have been formally diagnosed as autistic. I'm not saying that he should caveat all his claims and always be super clear about everything, but for a topic like autism, I think he should have been clearer about his claim in the title.

Initially, I thought Guzey should change the article's title. I'm changing my mind now and would be fine if he kept the title as is, but I would slightly prefer it if he added something like this in the article:

"Jobs, Musk, or Page have never been formally diagnosed as autistic, but my impression is that they exhibited a host of traits typically associated with autism/Asperger's. This is why I put the title as "(Autistic) visionaries are not natural born leaders"."

I strongly agree with Brian and would have written essentially the same comment had he not done so already. Please consider changing your title here.

Edit: having discussed this some more, including privately, while I am concerned about the same thing as Brian, I think his post can be read in a less charitable way than I had originally interpreted it. My concerns are outlined elsewhere, and I still hold them, but the "would have written essentially the same comment" no longer stands.

I disagree with this. I'm writing this without having looked at the data, but autism / Asperger's syndrome, particularly in their high functioning versions, seems to be underdiagnosed, and it's seems to be a very reasonable inference that at least some of the leaders under discussion were in fact on the autistic spectrum, or otherwise non-neurotypical. We can check this with a Metaculus question if you want.

I believe your point would've been valid had I claimed that they were formally diagnosed with autism. I'm not aware of any of them being diagnosed, which is why the title says "(autistic)" in parentheses, indicating that I'm not making such a claim about people I discuss in the post, but rather my impression that they exhibited a host of traits typically associated with autism/asperger's.

indicating that I'm not making such a claim about people I discuss in the post, but rather my impression that they exhibited a host of traits typically associated with autism/asperger's.

FWIW I don't interpret title words being in parentheses as indicating it's the author's impression. I interpreted your title as meaning something like "I think probably all visionaries are not natural-born leaders, but I'm more confident that autistic ones are not."

I don't understand how you can seriously not understand that difference between the two. Autism is a developmental disorder, which manifests itself in many ways, most of which are completely irrelevant to your post. Whereas being a "terrible leader", as you call them, is a personal trait which does not resemble autism in almost any way.

Furthermore, the word autistic in the title is not only completely speculative, but also does not help your case at all.

I think that by using that term so explicitly in your title, you spread misinformation, and with no good reason. I ask you to change the title, or let the forum moderators handle this situation.

Contrary to your insinuation, I never wrote that I don't understand the difference between those two. I was pointing out that Brian's argument applies to both "(autism)" and "terrible leaders".

I meant the difference between using the two, I don't doubt that you understand the difference between autism and (lack of) leadership. In any case, this was not main point, which is that the word autistic in the title does not help your post in any way, and spreads misinformation.

I do find the rest of the post insightful, and I don't think you are intentionally trying to start a controversy. If you really believe that this helps your post, please explain why (you haven't so far).

[-]Aaron Gertler5mo Moderator Comment12

Note from the lead moderator: We discussed a potential change to the post title, but no participants in the discussion thought that doing so was the right move. 

I personally found the title confusing and annoying for some of the reasons others have mentioned, but titles don't have to help the author's case (or even make sense). 

If a claim that someone had been diagnosed with a developmental disorder were being applied with no evidence to someone other than a public figure, it would clearly run afoul of our rules. But in this case, I don't think that whatever harm is done by confusion and the potential misuse of a medical term overrides a strong prior of "people can name posts what they want, and commentators can react as they see fit".*

I'm glad that the author added further explanation since this comment was made. In the future, I hope that Forum users will routinely back up controversial claims in their titles.

*I will sometimes change a post title if there's a clear mistake I think the author would want reversed (e.g. a misspelled word or misplaced punctuation mark), or if the title is visually awkward (e.g. written in all caps or written LiKe tHiS).

Thanks and apologies for the confusion created.

Thanks to Aaron for updating us, and thanks guzey for adding the clarification in the head of the post.

Yeah but I think there's still something wrong with hinting that people are "(autistic)", when they aren't diagnosed with it, or don't want to be known as that.

I assume you also have a problem with me writing that they were all terrible leaders and terrible at running a company then?

I don't have a problem with you writing that they were all terrible leaders or terrible at running a company. This is because I think there's enough good evidence showing that Jobs, Musk, and Page were all terrible leaders when they started out, or at least showed examples of bad leadership. And your article cites some of this good evidence.

Meanwhile, you haven't really cited any evidence of them being autistic, and I don't think there's enough good evidence that they are. And yet you hint that all of them have it, without any caveats in the article that this is your impression rather than a proper diagnosis. And from articles I've read online, there's no definitive answer to them being autistic or not.

Also, we need to take special care with words that have been used before in a very discriminative or derogatory way, such as autistic. Here's an article that talks about how labelling someone with autism or autistic can be derogatory: "Whatever way he meant it, "autistic" is often used as an insult and it's insensitive to use a term that describes a disability or a condition in this way, says the National Autistic Society."

I think the evidence that they are at least somewhat autistic is substantially stronger than the evidence that they were or are bad at leading companies. It's a bit sad that 'autistic' often comes with derogatory associations, but in this context I don't think it does, and also I don't have a great alternative word. And it does actually do a lot of work in the above post.

It seems to me that the autism dimension is pretty important for modeling how people work (in particular highly successful people), and I would be saddened to see any non-diagnosed use of that banned on here. 90%+ of people who are likely at least a standard deviation out on that dimension will of course never get diagnosed, so making a formal diagnosis a requirement for entertaining the hypothesis that someone might be autistic strikes as a very unreasonable standard. 

I am open to alternative words for the same dimension though, if there is something that people prefer. 

I might be misunderstanding Brian here, but I don't think the objection was "you shouldn't call people autistic because being autistic is bad". Certainly that's not my view. I also don't think Brian was calling for a ban on non-diagnosed use, I certainly wasn't.

Autism isn't mentioned in the piece, and Alex has already retreated to the "it's just my impression, I wasn't actually saying they were" bailey, so I'm still not sure what the point of leaving it in is, other than having succesfully refused to "give in to the mob" (of three people who asked him to consider changing the title), but it looks like it's staying, so I guess everyone can go home happy the mob was cowed in this case.

One reason many people object to the (fairly common) suggestions that so-and-so celeb who happens to be a bit techy and/or rude in some way is autistic are that those suggestions contribute to and are symptomatic of an extremely poor public understanding of autism, which is not unrelated to the lack of diagnosis mentioned by both you and Nuno.

I've sent Nuno a message offering to discuss further offline, as a lot of my thoughts here are informed by strong inside-view things which aren't public, will potentially write up anything that comes out of that but otherwise am unlikely to engage much further on here. 

I think it's a reasonable impression, based on my current epistemic state. I am not a huge fan of the "claim vs. impression" distinction, so I agree with you that Alex comment justifying the inclusion seems a bit confused, but I think it is fine to claim that there is a good chance the people listed  above have pretty outlierish traits in a way that seems pretty correlated to patterns usually detected in individuals formally diagnosed with autism.

I do think it's pretty plausible that there are problems with the public understanding of autism that are worth pushing back on, and that there might be misunderstandings here that might be furthered by the title. I don't know of any, but would be happy to hear more.

I do think Brian said pretty straightforwardly that we shouldn't use the word in the absence of a formal diagnosis? 

Yeah but I think there's still something wrong with hinting that people are "(autistic)", when they aren't diagnosed with it, or don't want to be known as that.

There is also the other case "or don't want to be known as that", but that doesn't strike me as a much better criterion, and I really don't know whether any of the people above would actually mind being described with the word "autistic".

It's possible Brian and I had different concerns, and that I misunderstood him, so I'll leave it to him to clean up. I actually don't think we disagree much, I don't think discussion of autism/ autistic traits is a problem, for example noting that really good mathematicians have higher AQ than average as part of a discussion would be completely fine.

In this case, I don't think the term added much, as rather than any kind of useful discussion it appeared in the title and nowhere else. A very tl;dr summary of the problems with public understanding is:

  • Autism, even restricting to high functioning autism, is much more heterogeneous than most people realise/than is typically portrayed.
  • This contributes to under-diagnosis, especially of those who don't present in the stereotypical way. This is more often a problem for women, though not limited to them.
  • It also often causes difficulties for autistic people in terms of how their difficulties are perceived by others, including their faimilies. As one example, even after diagnosis, autistic people who have learned to mask their difficulty with social interaction will frequently have the potentially still profound difficulties they experience in other areas underestimated by people who interact with them and don't see the rudeness they expect.
  • Even the more "positive" aspects of stereotypical presentation, about genius or visionary status, can be very difficult to deal with, and cause anxiety around inadequacy and/or imposter syndrome.

I don't expect that, on the margin, this post will change much, but as I've said a few times, I think there's basically 0 cost to making the decision not to contribute to this problem, unless you put high cost on ever admitting to a mistake.

I think I'd just note that the post, in my opinion, helps combat some of these issues. For instance it suggests that autistic people are able to learn how to interact with neurotypical people successfully, given sufficient effort--ie, the "mask".

Nuno and I discussed this a bit more privately. He thought the bullets above were broadly true, but that the post didn't really contribute to them.  I agreed that the contribution was small, but summarised why I thought it was nonzero as:
 


Roughly, it's annoying for (some) non-NT people to read, especially when they don't have "typical presentation", and in general unsophisticated discussion embeds the stereotypical ideas.

It just seemed to be a case of small downside and v little upside.

Nuno convinced me that the inclusion had more upside than I had originally thought. This combined with Alex's note means I'm now fine with the title.

As I wrote in another comment, my view on whether Jobs, Musk, or Page are actually autistic are in flux as I read other's comments here, like yours, and read more about others' views on them online. I'm not that familiar with autism/Asperger's, but initially I thought that at least 2/3 of them are not autistic. So it's interesting for me to learn that a couple other people on this forum like you agree that there's good evidence of them being autistic / having Asperger's.

I also agree that in this context the term autistic isn't used in a derogatory way. I am also not claiming that the use of the word should be banned.

Initially, I thought Guzey should change the article's title. I'm changing my mind now and would be fine if he kept the title as is, but I would slightly prefer it if he added something like this in the article:

"Jobs, Musk, or Page have never been formally diagnosed as autistic, but my impression is that they exhibited a host of traits typically associated with autism/Asperger's. This is why I put the title as "(Autistic) visionaries are not natural born leaders"."

This is just so people reading this would not think that these people have been formally diagnosed as autistic, when in fact they haven't been.

Great, then I think we basically agree! I also think that adding that paragraph would be good.

And now the post has been updated! Thanks guzey!

Great, thanks Guzey! There's a typo on the first sentence of the update though: "Update on the word "(Autistic)" in the title: I'm now aware of any of the people I discuss in the post being diagnosed with any autism spectrum disorders". The word "now" is supposed to be "not". :)

I'm autistic, and my problem with the title is that it implies that autistic people are bad leaders, without substantiating the claim about autism (the words "autism" and "autistic" do not appear in the piece other than in the title and hatnote). Autistic people who see this may be discouraged from becoming leaders even if they'd otherwise be competent.

That isn't even close to the same thing.

I don't understand you. Brian writes: "there's still something wrong with hinting that people are "(autistic)", when they aren't diagnosed with it, or don't want to be known as that"

I wrote that the people I wrote about in the post used to be "terrible leaders". I would guess that they don't want to be known as terrible leaders, thus satisfying one of Brian's conditions. Thus, I conclude that Brian and you want me to remove that part of my post as well.

If I wasn't a fan of your other work I'd have written you off as trolling at the point. The costs from random people on the internet hypothesizing about who's autistic are not only borne by the people you are hypothesising about, they are also borne by actually autistic people.

I don't see what the upside is for you, other than not having to admit to a mistake. Neither Brian nor I disliked the article, and the article in no way relies on the claim that the people you are discussing are autistic. We're just asking you not to throw around pseudodiagnoses about a condition that's already pretty badly misunderstood.

I'm not trying to troll, sorry if it seems this way. I really don't understand why you have a problem with "(autistic)" but don't have a problem with a "terrible leader". This seems inconsistent to me. As far as I can see all of your arguments apply to both of these. My title still seems justified to me.

I don't have a problem admitting a mistake and in fact in the past I have changed the title of the post based on people telling me that it wasn't justified: https://old.reddit.com/r/slatestarcodex/comments/gn55rx/ignore_any_paper_based_on_selfreported_data/fvcfskr/

It's a lot easier to learn to be a better leader than it is to learn not to be autistic...

This was intended to highlight that caring about harms to "bad leaders" and caring about harms to to autistic people are meaningfully different. I care about the latter, and don't really care at all about theformer. I'm assuming from the downvotes that this was not clear.

I'm surprised that you care about harms to autistic people but not to bad leaders. Are people born to be bad leaders somehow more deserving of that?

How is this relevant?......

Uh,

There’s a large, high effort comment chain surrounding the wording of “autism” in the title, but the differences in opinion seemed modest, and both original positions seemed reasonable and humble.

On the other hand, there's a much more substantive issue: two of the leaders mentioned in the post have terrible traits that I don’t think any effective altruists like.

These traits make them bad people and also bad “leaders” in a way that undermines the post.

In fact, the issues are so severe that I have to temper my views and omit details in this comment because one of the people mentioned is manipulative and personally vindictive on social media.

These two people are indeed far more influential and successful than almost any other human being. They’re much smarter than me too.

However, I doubt they are more intelligent or technically able than many effective altruists and their success does not make them good leaders or role models. This is because they are successful and well known because of the outcome of the tech boom, more specifically, financial engineering and ability to use narratives to extract talented labor in this environment.

Even with these tailwinds, these people are so self destructive that their excesses could have crushed them in a slightly different realization of events, such as missing a single key deal.

I don’t know them personally, but I believe I have inside knowledge of their behavior that strongly supports the idea that they are systemically predatory. I also have other information, such as direct accounts from financiers who view the leadership of one as an absolute negative.

By the way, the speaking style of one of these people is so pronounced that it is suspected of being a ploy specifically to extract goodwill for “non-NT” people. This seems plausible to me and makes their use of an example for “autism” succeeding particularly misleading.

There’s dozens of people, and popular figures, such as Bill Gates or Jeff Bezos, would be much better examples for this post (setting aside the apparently large effort needed to drag around social constructs).

I know my comment seems unbecoming, but it is relevant to the author’s point in more than one way.

I would be interested in a counterpoint, but it seems difficult to get an informed opinion except from someone senior in these industries who have experience with senior leadership.

This was something I needed, thank you!

From his documentary, Bill Gates also did not seem like a natural born leader, at least in my intuitive impression of the term.