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
The Rumsfeld Way: Leadership Wisdom of a Battle-Hardened Maverick