Separating himself from tech titans Elon Musk and Steve Jobs, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates provided insights into his leadership style during a recent fireside discussion. After receiving the Economic Club of New York’s Peter G. Peterson Leadership Excellence Award, Gates thought back on the things he had learnt throughout his time at Microsoft.
The talk’s moderator prompted Gates to delve into the challenges of fostering innovation within a company. Gates acknowledged the diversity in leadership styles, citing Musk and Jobs as examples of individuals who pushed hard, perhaps too hard. With a chuckle, Gates proclaimed, “I think of myself as very nice compared to those guys.”
Elaborating on his relationship with Steve Jobs, Gates revealed the duo’s complex history, characterized by a mix of collaboration and competition. Their dynamic rivalry is credited with driving innovation at both Microsoft and Apple. After Jobs’ passing in 2011, Gates expressed respect and gratitude for the competition they shared.
Gates’ relationship with Elon Musk has been more tumultuous, marked by public disagreements on topics ranging from space travel to climate change. Gates disclosed to Musk’s biographer that the Tesla CEO had been “super mean” to him in 2022, attributing it to his shorting of Tesla stock. Despite their differences, Gates acknowledged the necessity of a “certain intensity” for success as an innovative leader.
The discussion also touched on Gates’ intense focus during Microsoft’s early days, dispelling an urban legend about memorizing employees’ license plates to track working hours. While confirming the tale with a grin, Gates credited his intensity with the positive experience he had at Microsoft, which continues to influence his perspective on problem-solving through an innovation lens.
Reflecting on his past, Gates remarked, “In my 20s, I was monomaniacally focused on Microsoft. I didn’t believe in weekends or vacations.” This intensity, he believes, contributed to the positive culture of innovation that shaped Microsoft’s success and continues to guide his thinking today.