It's Lonely at the Top
When Christian von Koenigsegg was five years old — in 1977 or so — he went to the movies with his father.
They watched an animated film about a bicycle repairman who built a race car on a Norwegian mountaintop and entered it in a Le Mans-style race against bigger, established race teams.
The bicycle repairman won.
“I remember that point very clearly,” says Koenigsegg in Apex: The Story of the Hypercar
. “I felt that I wanted to do what that bicycle repairman was doing — build his own car with his little team and do something fantastic with it.”
A seed was planted.
Today, the company Koenigsegg founded in 1994 — Koenigsegg Automotive — has been building cars for over a quarter century.
Its latest creation is the Koenigsegg Gemera, an ultraelegant, 1,700-horsepower hypercar. Only 300 will be produced. They will sell for $1.9 million each.
How do people like Koenigsegg — or Michael Jordan — defy the odds and reach the summit of their professions?
Certainly, a mosaic of laudable qualities explains their success. Hard work. Natural ability. Discipline.
Yet, less laudable traits, at least to some, are also at work. Foremost among these are an obsession with constant improvement and an unwillingness to compromise.
“My mentality was to go out and win, at any cost,” explained Michael Jordan in The Last Dance
, a documentary series on the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty in the 1990s. “If you don’t want to live that regimented mentality, then you don’t need to be alongside me.”
The quiet truth about leadership is that it often comes at the expense of being liked. There are exceptions, but they are rare.
“Winning has a price. And leadership has a price,” said Jordan. “I pulled people along when they didn’t wanna be pulled. I challenged people when they didn’t wanna be challenged.”
Jordan continued: “When people see this, they gonna say, ‘He wasn’t really a nice guy. He may have been a tyrant.’ Well, that’s you, because you never won anything. I wanted to win, but I wanted them to win and be a part of that as well.”
The same is true at Koenigsegg Automotive.
“[Christian] is the guy who thinks that nothing is impossible,” said Manuel Berglund, Koenigsegg’s production manager, in Apex. “That’s how he works.”
“He puts a lot of pressure on us,” said Robert Serwanski, Koenigsegg’s test driver. “Not pressure in a bad way, but pressure as in he has high expectations for the people he works with.”
“Working here, working for Christian,” Serwanski continued, “is not for everyone.”
Not every leader has what it takes to achieve excellence. But those that do have come to terms with the uncomfortable truth that it can be lonely at the top.
• John J Maxfield / editor in chief of Bank Director