Do jerks make better leaders?


(Bob Staake for The Washington Post)
September 7, 2012

Does a leader have to be a jerk? If you just start ticking off names, it sure seems to help. Steve Jobs, Michael Eisner, Larry Ellison, Martha Stewart, Meg Whitman, Sam Zell, Carly Fiorina, Bob Nardelli, “Chainsaw Al” Dunlap, Richard Fuld, Mark Hurd, Jeffrey Skilling. And in a class of his own is Donald Trump, who has parlayed an unbounded self-regard not just into a real estate and media empire but into a brief early lead in the Republican primary polls.

You can see why people would make the connection. There are times when a swollen ego and indifference to the feelings of others seem just the ticket for career advancement.

Or you could put a positive spin on it, as the Michigan Business School’s Noel M. Tichy does. “To an extent,” he says, “every good leader is an asshole,” explaining that they’re despised because their underlings can’t appreciate their vision or willingness to take risks. One way or the other, modern executive pay structures are apt to exacerbate the condition. It’s an immutable law of economics that one’s sense of entitlement increases as the ratio of one’s compensation to that of the average worker.

The association of leadership and the A-word may not actually hold up that well, but it’s interesting for its very persistence.

It dates back to the word’s earliest use as a term of abuse. The epithet was a recent coining of World War II GIs when Gen. George S. Patton became the first military leader tagged with it, by both his men and his superiors. By all accounts, the soubriquet was well deserved. Patton was a brilliant tactician, but he could also be a prima donna, a martinet, a suck-up and on occasion an abusive jerk. Asked why he despised Patton, Gen. Omar Bradley cited an episode in which Patton urinated in the slit trench of one of his division commanders in front of his men to convey that it was cowardly to take cover in an air raid.

That incident didn’t make it into the 1970 film “Patton,” which depicted the general as a colorful maverick, making him a cultural icon and a model of successful management. To date, he has inspired more books on leadership than George C. Marshall, Dwight Eisenhower or any other military commander other than George Washington, who had a 150-year head start.

As those books tell the story, Patton’s abusiveness was part of a calculated effort to motivate his men to achieve an excellence they didn’t know they were capable of. As the author of a book called Patton on Leadership puts it, “If he slapped a soldier, well, it was certainly wrong, but he thought it necessary for the morale of his troops….[T]he discipline and the obedience required by a great leader are so often cause for griping and displeasure. But in retrospect, to have served under Patton was a red badge of courage to be worn forever.”

That may be overstated. The military historian Edwin Palmer Hoyt has said of Patton that “he did not impress the troops as much as he impressed other generals with the notion that he impressed the troops.” But it succeeds in reassuring managers that one can be harsh or insulting to subordinates in the conviction that it's for their own good and that they'll be thankful for it later. This theme recurs in a whole shelf of titles that offer leadership tips from figures whose names are frequently paired with the A-word, such as Dugout Days: Untold Tales and Leadership Lessons from the Extraordinary Career of Billy Martin or  The Rumsfeld Way: Leadership Wisdom of a Battle-Hardened Maverick

And now, of course, there’s Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography of Jobs, which amply documents his capacity for abusiveness and petulance, and his tantrums worthy of a wasted rock star. Here as with Patton, apologists discern the hand of a gifted manager. According to Alan Deutschman in Newsweek, Jobs was a “master of psychological manipulation” who found that “many of the most brilliant engineers and creative types actually responded well to cruel criticism, since it reinforced their own secret belief that they weren’t living up to their vaunted potential.”

People are of different minds about that. I know of one Apple engineer who says he left the company because he got tired of wiping Jobs’ spittle off his glasses. But as Robert Sutton, author of the business bestseller The No Asshole Rule , has noted, “Everyone has their own private Steve Jobs. It usually tells you a lot about them—and little about Jobs.” Most of the would-be masters of the universe who take Patton or Jobs as their personal models aren’t choosing assholism as a career expedient, they’re looking to justify their predilection for it.

Yet on consideration, being a jerk is a less essential leadership qualification than those people suppose. The leadership shelves are also brimming with wisdom drawn from the likes of John Wooden, Gandhi, the apostle Paul and Captain Picard, none of whom brings the A-word to mind. Nor do the great majority of the CEOs of the companies on Barron’s “Most Respected” list. Still, with a few exceptions (think of Berkshire Hathaway) it’s the jerks whose names we’re most likely to know.   

And there’s the problem. There are certainly no more of these abusers populating the corner suites than there were in ages past—compared to the likes of Jay Gould and Henry Clay Frick, even Chainsaw Al is a pussycat. But the type has become a singular obsession for us. Every age seizes on one social miscreant to personify its deepest social anxieties, as the cad did for Trollope and the phony did for Holden Caulfield. And the asshole is ours.  

I’m not talking about the run-of-the-mill despots and weasels that no workplace is ever wholly free of, but the figures who manage to make their nastiness a central thread of their public persona. Year in and year out, candidates for the A-word make up about half of Barbara Walters’ list of most fascinating people—a disproportion even for the worlds of entertainment, sports and politics from which Walters draws her candidates. And the spectacle of people acting like jerks to one another has become a reliable business model for reality TV, talk radio and cable “news.”

We’re on a first-name basis with them: A-Rod, Omarosa, Rush, Kanye, Newt, Kim, Charlie, Mel, Tiger, Donald. You don’t have to love them, but you have to concede that Walters is right—they do fascinate us. So it isn’t surprising that our attention should also fasten on the business leaders who belong to that breed.

Well, they do make better copy. But it’s a risky point of departure for someone starting out on a career. True, every once in a while an A-word aspirant manages to percolate to the executive dining room on the strength of audacity alone. But the majority wind up seven job changes later, still in the company cafeteria, eating lunch alone.

Nunberg is a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Information. He is the linguist contributor on the NPR show Fresh Air and the author, most recently, of Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years.

More from On Leadership:

How to be a bad boss

Why presidents are rarely breakthrough leaders

Warren Buffett pops the question

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