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Do leadership competencies have to include “being an asshole?”

Leadership competencies

I feel like this is a pertinent question of the modern age: can you be a good leader, i.e. possess leadership competencies and drive growth/revenue, without being an asshole? I’m honestly not that sure.

We can run down the major examples. Steve Jobs was an unbelievable jerk. He made a ton of people rich, disrupted multiple industries, and built the No. 1 company in the world. (Although that’s shifting.) Jeff Bezos, who ostensibly changed commerce, is purportedly a jerk. Amazon’s work culture is notoriously pretty awful. Wal-Mart has long been near the top of the Fortune 500; most people that have come to run it are authoritarian jerks in their own right. That’s three examples, which is the journalistic gold standard for “a trend,” but I’ll do one more. It’s nearly impossible to read anything about Travis Kalanick (Uber CEO) and not view him as an asshole. His Vanity Fair profile from a few years ago is one of the worst things you’ll ever cringe through.

Now, look, there are counter-examples. Google (Alphabet?) makes a bunch of money, and it mostly seems like a good culture — and guys like Page and Brin seem OK. (Well, OK, maybe Brin has some issues.) Berkshire Hathaway makes a ton of money, and Warren Buffett is America’s fiscally-aware grandfather. So you can be a good CEO, and possess leadership competencies, without being an asshole. But that’s the exception and not the rule. Why is this, though?

Leadership competencies and success/productivity

I don’t want to belabor points we all somewhat know, so I can keep this relatively short. First: from about the time of Henry Ford, work has been about productivity and very little else. That’s how we train managers. Managers eventually become CEOs and all they know is productivity metrics and execution. Even if they’re not an asshole, they will come off like an asshole to most people who have to work under them. That’s Tier 1.

Tier 2 is that we have horrible definitions of success in most first-world economies. Making good money, buying a nice-sized house, and spending time with your family consistently are not markers of success. It’s all about more, more, more. You need to be a high achiever. Even if you absolutely despise Trump, hard to argue that he’s “successful” in our base terms. As such, America just minted perhaps its biggest myth. That’s fun!

For years, the path to this success/productivity has been “be a workaholic.” That becomes all some of these guys know. When they become CEOs, their perception of leadership competencies is “Everyone else should be working 18-hour days.” If some of those people have three kids under 10 or other interests, they begin to perceive their CEO as an asshole.

But you can only drive productivity and growth by being an asshole, right?

I would call that “The Myth of Steve Jobs.” It’s not really true. You can drive revenue through compassion, although it admittedly seems fluffy. Revenue growth can also come from being a more empathetic company. Most research-based concepts around managerial skills (i.e. leadership competencies) lean much more towards soft skills than hard, revenue-pounding skill sets.

Look, there are people who slack off. In fact, there are many of them. When you have those people on your team, you need to drive a little bit harder, sure. However, there are solutions to this problem: for one, if you have a lot of these people, fire them. It’s OK! Second: understand that “hard-driving” is not the only path to increased productivity. Sometimes relationship-building does that just as well, if not better.

I love me some accountability and all that, but listen. If you put some Type-A bell-ringing ass clown in front of who’s screeching about metrics every second, I will half-ass every project he gives. Who cares anymore? You know that type of guy isn’t advancing you. He mostly cares about himself. Now if you put a manager in front of me who cares, sets priorities, talks to you, etc … I’ll work 3x as hard. Maybe I’m abnormal or naive, but I don’t think so. Hell, my therapist says I’m pretty well-adjusted, f*ck you very much!

The self-sustaining mentality of the asshole culture

One problem, often glossed over: once a few asshole guys get into the upper ranks, they mint/promote their friends. Now the whole senior team is a bunch of bell-ringing, KPI-chest-pounding jagoffs. Leadership competencies that matter (soft skills) just died in the flood. Instead, you have a self-sustaining, consistently-repeating culture of assholes. Once you’re in it, it’s hard to break out. I don’t know the internal culture of Microsoft, but they seemed to have done it. Ballmer seems like a jerk from afar, and Nadella seems like a nice, reflective guy. But I may be totally wrong there.

Could we get better about promoting the right leadership competencies upward?

You’d hope, but probably not. We gussy up work in lots of buzzwords and terms, but let me break it down for you right quick and clean. The power core wants to be surrounded by like-minded individuals that don’t push back on them, and they want to share together in the perks of the company’s successes. That’s the simplest answer to “why hierarchy still exists.” Hierarchy alienates about 100x more people than it helps, but those people getting helped are really getting helped. And since they have the power, why would they change anything? You ever wonder why most change management processes at a job are such a train wreck? It’s because secretly the executives could care less. They root everything in buzzwords because they know that won’t go anywhere, or they kick it to HR because, well, ditto. If change actually happened, it would threaten their existing perch. Who wants that?

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Once you realize the psychology of how most people approach work, these issues become more challenging. As generations rise up and automation becomes an increasing reality, I do think some of the “human touch” leadership competencies may return to the work world. It’ll be our best push-back against a tech-only future. But right now? This is a pipe dream for a lot of companies, many of whom still operate on 1991 metrics and bureaucracy-laden management tiers.

So is one of the core leadership competencies of a CEO that he/she must be an asshole? No. Not at all. But do we unfortunately frame it up that way frequently? Yes. Very much so.

What else might you add about leadership competencies and being a jerk?

Ted Bauer

3 Comments

      • I fear it may eventually, in the manner of many other positive developments in management that become trendy. Brings to mind “employee engagement”, which I know you write about a lot…in theory, managers engaging their direct reports helps maintain their sense of purpose and helps boost morale; in practice, it’s now an industry replete with “thought leaders” presenting their educated guesses as gospel.

        Brings to mind an example from a project management course I took last year. A couple of my classmates worked for an “employee engagement” company. My impression of what they did is that they perhaps offered some valuable insight to their clients, but ultimately were management consultants with gussied up titles.

        I do think the net byproduct and legacy of “human touch”-oriented companies will ultimately have a positive effect on how we run organizations, however. If it gets a few of these highfalutin CEOs thinking in a more humanistic direction, I’m all for it!

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