Reluctant leaders: Paul Allen

Paul Russell looks at the reluctant leadership of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. 

The Loch Ness Monster of the digital age. The other man in the Microsoft story. Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and the man that persuaded Bill Gates to pack in Harvard for entrepreneurship, presents a bit of a conundrum.

On the one hand we have the media portrayal of a reclusive individual who shied away from the limelight and ultimately stepped away from Microsoft. Yet on the other we have the lead-guitarist, billionaire philanthropist entertaining stars like Pamela Anderson and Lindsay Lohan on his superyacht in Cannes.

We all know the Microsoft story, but today we look at the reluctant leadership of Paul Allen.

Much is written about Bill Gates and his extraordinary leadership style, and not so much about Allen’s. The Daily Mail calls Gates “totally unaware of the social niceties of life” citing his lack of demonstrable communication skills like eye contact and small talk.

And this chimes with the recollections of Allen when talking about the early years at Microsoft, saying: “Microsoft was a high-stress environment because Bill drove others as hard as he drove himself…Bill liked to hash things out in intense, one-on-one discussions; he thrived on conflict and wasn’t shy about instigating it.”

In his book ‘Idea Man: A Memoir By the Co-Founder of Microsoft’, a book that was said to have caused a rift between Gates and Allen, Allen recalls the time that Gates pushed for the 60-40 company ownership split, saying: “I’d been coding what I could in my spare time and feeling guilty that I couldn’t do more, but Bill had been instrumental in packing our software…all in all, I thought, a 60-40 split might be fair.”

Allen has demonstrated an awareness of Gates’ preferred communication and leadership style, saying: “It was tough not to back off against Bill…the irony was that Bill liked it when someone pushed back.”

Then later, CBS report that when the partnership was formalised and Gates pushed for a 64-36 split saying that Allen wasn’t as committed to the business as he was, once more Allen capitulated.


Perhaps Allen was genuinely less committed to Microsoft, or perhaps he was reluctant to take on that particular fight or even to engage in that style of leadership saying: “Some said Bill’s management style was a key ingredient in Microsoft’s early success but that made no sense to me. Why wouldn’t it be more effective to have civil and rational discourse? Why did we need knock-down, drag-out fights?”

Given that Idea Man was published in 2012, some thirty years after some of the events described in the book, it is probable that the benefit of reflection allowed Allen to see the situation at Microsoft, Gates’s leadership style, and Allen’s own reaction to it more objectively. At the time though, a reluctance to engage is understandable.

Academics have attributed Allen’s leadership style to laissez-fare, inspired by new ideas (which ties in with Allen’s recollection of his ideas being instrumental in the early days of Microsoft) but with a hands off managerial style and a dislike of the mundane.

Whilst Gates, with his desire to challenge and probe difficult issues is said to be a transactional leader with Allen recalling: “A few of us cringed at the way he’d demean people and force them to defend their positions.” That the two leadership styles would clash was inevitable and were very likely a factor in Allen’s reluctance to lead at that time.

Allen’s health issues are said to have been the catalyst for leaving Microsoft when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1982.

In an interview with Fortune in 1995, Allen said: “After that two-year period, well, I just didn’t want to go back to work,” whilst Gates’ comments are once again telling of the culture at Microsoft at that time: “It was great that Paul got better, and we wanted him back more than anything. But there was just no part-time way to come back to Microsoft. If you were going to be there, you were really going to work hard.”

Post Microsoft, we’ve seen that Allen is anything but reluctant to lead. His website states he is ‘exploring the frontiers of technology and human knowledge, and working to change the future’ through his companies Vulcan Inc., the Allen Institute and the Paul G Allen Family Foundation, as well as owning several sports teams and funding SpaceShipOne.

Allen and Gates enjoyed unimaginable success, far beyond even they could have envisaged when they set out hoping to form a company that could one day employ 35 people. A reluctance to lead can be for many reasons other than the obvious; a dissonance with colleagues, reluctance to adapt to the prevailing culture, even family or health issues.

Which one (or more) applied to Allen, we may never know but what we can see is that a reluctance to lead is not always quite as black and white as we might imagine.


About the author

Paul Russell is co-founder and director of Luxury Academy London, a multi-national private training company with offices in London, Delhi, Mumbai and Visakhapatnam. Luxury Academy London specialise in leadership, communication and business etiquette training for companies and private clients across a wide range of sectors.



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