Barney Frank and the cult of brash bosses

December 1, 2011

Representative Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, announced he will retire instead of seeking another term after Massachusetts re-shapes his congressional district. (Kelvin Ma/BLOOMBERG)

But just about everyone commented on his petulance, his abrasiveness, and his tendency to bully everyone from his opponents to reporters. Both The New York Times and The Washington Post had columns or profiles highlighting Frank’s pugilistic style. The Times’ Carolyn Ryan wrote that toward the end of his first run for Congress in 1980, “he could get so tense and caustic” that his aides tried to keep him away from voters. And the Post’s Dana Milbank recalls the “mean and ornery S.O.B.[’s]” acid tongue that limited his success: “The gratuitous nastiness, to allies and especially to his own staff, [has] kept him from achieving far more in his three-decade career on the Hill.”

The Frank profiles are a good opportunity to consider how much combativeness can get in the way of success. Can leaders be jerks and still achieve everything they want to accomplish? In today’s bare-knuckles game of business and politics, does a brash style really hurt your career? Put more simply: Must leaders be nice to be noteworthy?

We don’t have to look much further than Steve Jobs to see they don’t have to. The former Apple CEO could be, as we all know by now, a grade-A jerk who threw tantrums, parked in handicapped spots, and was fully capable of so-called gratuitous nastiness. Some are even worried that “with the death and canonization of Steve Jobs and the emergence of the Jobs biography as a kind of sacred text for managers,” writes Tom McNichol over at the Atlantic, “the ranks of bosses who see Bad Steve's nastier traits as something to imitate is liable to swell.” Jobs, he writes, is considered by too many people in Silicon Valley to be “living proof” that being an ass was a big part of leading a good company.

Of course, Steve Jobs was not a phenomenal innovator because of his leadership style; he was wildly successful in spite of it. And no, I’m not going to draw some pained parallel between the brilliance of Steve Jobs and the ornery intelligence of Barney Frank. But it’s worth considering when being a nasty boss can help and when it hurts. In a world in which extreme attention to detail is needed—like, say, technology development—or when there’s a real need for motivation, there could be some virtues to having a controlling jerk in the top chair. Because many such managers are equally good at turning on the charm when needed, McNichol writes, their salesmanship could outweigh their bad sides. And occasionally, brash thinking (and unfortunately, brash behavior) goes hand-in-hand with an appetite for innovation and risk that other more measured leaders can’t really summon from themselves.

But in most cases, it’s obvious that over-the-top petulance stands in the way of accomplishment. That’s especially so in a place like Congress where negotiating skills and relationship building are supposedly the keys to success. Sure, a combative and abrasive style might win leaders points in the highly polarized dysfunction that is today’s Congress. But it could also cause them to lose the most accomplished legacy possible.

More from On Leadership:

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Meet the 2011 Top American Leaders

Powerful women in Washington

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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