Tech industry giants
According to a new book, they tended to shout at their subordinates, lacked the well-rounded style of today's aspiring management class and engaged in "sometimes seriously counterproductive" behavior.
They also committed strategic errors, displayed management blind spots and made the mistake of anointing as successors managers better suited to the role of understudy.
So are there lessons that business leaders in other fields other than technology can learn from their idiosyncratic, spectacularly effective business careers?
For authors David Yoffie of Harvard Business School and Michael Cusumano of MIT, the answer is a resounding yes. Their book, "Strategy Rules: Five Timeless Lessons From Bill Gates, Andy Grove, and Steve Jobs," is published by HarperBusiness.
As students of the tech industry for years — in Yoffie's case, from the vantage point of a board seat at Intel — they have watched some of the greatest tech empires rise, fade and (in Apple's case) rise again.
They boil down their observations to five lessons, some of which offer more teachable moments than others. The book's brevity, at less than 200 pages, is both its strength and weakness.
Distilling the message makes for considerable clarity, but a deeper analysis would have brought out more of the messy complexity from which the Microsoft, Apple and Intel bosses carved their huge successes.
"Look forward, reason back" may be the lesson that others will find easiest to relate to. Put simply: Decide where your company needs to be in the future, then work back to how you can get there from here.
The problem, of course, is that no amount of extrapolation and analysis will help you forecast the future, particularly in fast-changing industries. Interpretation is all.
Although the anecdotes about Microsoft and Apple are mostly well known, it is the insights into Intel's Andy Grove that feel the freshest.
Grove, for instance, foresaw a time when the tech industry would devolve into "horizontal" layers, opening the way for Intel to dominate the market for PC microprocessors while leaving less profitable hardware to others.
As the authors describe it, it wasn't just a moment of inspiration: Grove, the master of detail, was constantly measuring and adjusting, feeling his way to the future.
A second lesson — "Make big bets without betting the company" — also sounds simple but takes mastery that comes from deep knowledge of a situation and a strong gut.
Yet even the master strategists could be overcautious: In his only personal anecdote from Intel, Yoffie describes how he admonished Grove on several occasions for a "tendency to be too risk averse."
Ultimately, the authors attribute the outsized success of the three pioneers of the personal computing age, as well as their sometimes damaging inflexibility, to the driving passions that shaped them:
Gates for software, Jobs for design and Grove for an iron management discipline.
Final lesson: "Shape the organization around your personal anchor."
How many business leaders could find that if they looked for it?