After reading SI's profile of Kobe Bryant's incredible drive, Ben asks, "Are the big time CEOs freakishly competitive, mind-blowingly arrogant, and singularly focused on their business goals even at the cost of "balance"?
In a word, yes. History is pretty clear on the fact that most great men (and women) are bastards.
Even Gandhi was a philandering jerk.
But, and this is an important but, there are exceptions.
Chekhov was a living saint. Bill George at Medtronic always coached his kids soccer games. I've heard from many that Richard Branson is actually a pretty decent dude.
And certainly, being an asshole doesn't guarantee sustained success. Just ask Al Dunlap.
There is a lot of evidence to suggest that for most people, being likeable is a better career strategy than being a jerk. Bob Sutton has all the details in "The No Asshole Rule." So if you don't suffer from the ambition to be king of the hill, you'll probably do fine.
This issue is this: If you scorn balance, work like a machine, and devote your entire life to excelling in one area, it's going to be tough for "nice guys" to match your performance. If the balanced guy works 40 hours per week, and you manage to work 100, and at a monomaniacally greater level of focus, you'll probably climb that ladder that much faster.
Moreover, there's no insurmountable reason that you can't be insanely driven and focused (to the exclusion of having any kind of personal life), and still be polite and likeable. Warren Buffett is just as obsessed as Kobe, but because he comes off as warm and funny, we like him AND worship him.
If, like Warren Buffet (or Chekhov, or Bill George), you can carry off this achievement mania without making everyone around you think you're a weapons-grade prick, you *can* avoid the asshole penalty. It's just rare as heck.
So if you do have that crazed, burning drive to be #1, and you consider that achievement worth any cost, go for it. Just don't be a jerk or complain about your lack of family or happiness.
(This post originally appeared as a comment on Ben's blog, and is also cross-posted to AskTheHarvardMBA)