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.
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