The First, Worst Conflict of Bill Gates

The First, Worst Conflict of Bill Gates

The most memorable glass of water Bill Gates ever had, he didn’t drink. When he was twelve years old, Bill Gates got into a conflict with his parents. He got mad, shouted at his mother, and his father admonished him. The remarkable thing about that unpleasant but not uncommon exchange, of a sort that occurs in most families, was how remarkable it was for Gates.

Conflict per se was not unusual for the Gates family as Robert Guth reports in last weekend’s edition of the Wall Street Journal. Through conversations with Bill Gates Sr. and other family members, Guth discovered that the Gates family atmosphere was highly competitive. They often played cards, board games, ping-pong and other sports. There were arguments too. Even as a boy, Bill Jr. was confrontational, stirring up intense discussions with his parents.

In the article Guth focused on what it was like for Bill Sr. to raise Bill Jr., who would become one of the most influential business leaders of our age. At 6’6″ Bill Gates Sr. towers even in adulthood over his son, though he never exercised a domineering presence. And regardless of family competition and quarrels, Bill Sr. rarely lost his composure.

Until one day when Bill Jr. shouted at his mother in an argument. Bill Sr. promptly doused his son with a glass of water and told him to be more respectful. 

This was such an untypical incident in the Gates family experience that it survived vividly in the family lore. They remember it and talk about it, and Guth even led his front-page article with this “water toss” anecdote.

As Guth relates, however, only rarely did the Gates family slip into negative conflict. The water splash puts a memorable punctuation mark on the incident, but it was an isolated incident of loss of temper and poise on the part of Bill Sr., not one of many examples.

The glass of water Bill Jr. wore but did not drink stands out by exception. It was a rare deviation from how the Gates family typically dealt with conflict, and how Bill Jr. learned in his early years about managing conflict and dealing with difficult people (like himself!).

Apart from learning about conflict there are obviously many factors that helped shape Bill Jr.’s eventual business success, including for example his natural drive and intelligence.

Chance surely played a role too. In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell recounts how Gates as a boy in the 1960s had extensive access to state-of-the-art computer resources that happened to be nearby at the University of Washington. Bill Jr. spent over ten thousand hours working with computers as a young man, which exceeded the time even most world-class computer scientists had in that era.

Gates’ unusual access to computers in his youth equipped him with invaluable technical knowledge to help him succeed in the software industry. His computer experience, however, doesn’t explain how Gates accomplished the even more unusual feat of successfully leading an organization for decades of sustained success through all stages of growth, from startup through becoming a global leader.

That story isn’t just technical, it’s interpersonal. Among the important interpersonal factors driving his leadership success is how Gates managed to handle conflict effectively enough to keep talented people working with him through countless challenges over the years.

It’s worth considering that Bill Jr.’s family experience may have helped him internalize the distinction between intensity and insult that often mark the difference between creative conflict and negative conflict.

We should all keep in mind our own “water toss” incidents to remind ourselves to manage the crucial difference between creative conflict that helps people move forward as a group-whether a family or a business team-versus negative conflict which stirs resentment and splinters a group into factions.

Incidentally, the twelve-year-old Gates said in response to his father’s water toss: “Thanks for the shower.” Because this incident is apparently the worst conflict the young Gates had with his father, who otherwise so successfully role-modeled composure and steering away from negative conflict, he might now say, in retrospect, “Thanks for the lesson.”