Jerry Useem is causing an uproar with his article in the June issue of the Atlantic, “Why it Pays to be a Jerk”.[i] He actually makes a strong case for being a “disagreeable giver,” rather than a jerk. Many of today’s celebrity executives, such as Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Larry Bossidy and Jack Welch are leaders who – while decorum prevents me from calling them jerks – aren’t known for their “light touch.”
There are many counterweights to these famous contemporary executives who are not jerks. LinkedIn’s Jeff Weiner, for example, was recognized by LinkedIn employees in Glassdoor’s annual survey as No. 1 on the list of “Top 10 CEOS at U.S. Tech Companies.” The rest of the top ten are also very impressive, including Apple’s Tim Cook and Salesforce.com’s Marc Benioff.[ii]
What are we to believe? In my work as a Human Resources leader and executive coach, I’ve worked with a mixture of executives. Some jerks. Some nice guys. I’ve sometimes received requests to modify a leader’s style, which included controlling the jerk factor. While I’ve also been asked to coach someone to have a tougher skin, no one has ever asked me to coach a leader to be more of a jerk.
What case is Jerry making?
Jerry Useem points to recent research from the University of Amsterdam which showed that semi-obnoxious behavior, bullying, and overconfidence can make a person seem and be more powerful. The study looked at jerky behaviors, such as acting like the smartest person in the room, or an individual stealing more than his or her fair share of cookies from the plate during meetings. The study showed that agreeableness, on the other hand, weakens a person’s leadership. Pouring coffee for the group, without stealing it, made the leader look weak.
Yet other researchers, and my own experience, demonstrates that the top layers of corporations are populated by takers and givers. Why is this? Wharton professor Adam Grant explains that many takers, including narcissistic leaders, are good at hiding their semi-obnoxious behavior from benefactors. To use his vernacular, they are exceptional at “kissing up and kicking down.”
Jerks who are extremely successful in corporations learn to steal on behalf of the group, not just for themselves. Jerry cites a 2012 Dutch coffeepot study showing that jerks who learn to take (in this case steal coffee) on behalf of the group as opposed to themselves, see a positive spike in the perceptions that others have of their leadership. They transition from being “a jerk” to “a disagreeable giver.”
Separate from Jerry Useem’s Atlantic article, studies on successful leadership traits have shown for decades that initiative and dominance are positive predictors of leadership.[iii] Recent demographic factors, such as the rise of women in management and the global, multi-cultural workforce, are changing what companies want in their leaders, however. Today’s leaders increasingly need to be agile and inspirational as well as confident.
Jerry Useem points out correctly that leading by fear and dominance is on the decline, citing research from UC Berkeley’s Cameron Anderson. What is on the rise in his view is competence and prestige, but those characteristics are hard to judge. What make a strong first impression is dominance and acting like you are the smartest person in the room (jerky behavior).
Jerry states that being a jerk, “is likely to fail you, at least in the long run,” if:
- it brings no spillover benefits to the group
- your professional transactions involve people you’ll have to deal with over and over again
- you stumble even once (no one will want to help you)
- you lack the powerful charismatic aura of Steve Jobs
Which is to say, “Being a jerk will fail most people most of the time!”
On the other hand, Jerry concludes that being a jerk will help you in your first roles or encounters where reputational blowback has minimal effect, such as during the formation of a group when hierarchy is not formed, or in the speed of a crisis.
So, how do “jerk leaders” still get to the top?
They learn to harness their obnoxious behavior to support the success of the group or organization rather than satisfy their own ego. They take initiative, have high standards, and tweak the rules for the benefit of the group. They smile, challenge ideas but not people, and moderate their toughness with humanity.
That’s not too far off from contemporary leadership coaching, with a little humanity and agility thrown in for good measure. But hey, I’m a nice guy!
What has been your experience? Do jerks win, and nice guys and gals finish last?
Victor Assad is a strategic human resources consultant and coach who works with key decision makers and human resources leaders on talent management, accelerating change, leadership development, and other strategic initiatives, such as mergers and acquisitions, strategy implementation, and flexible workplace. You can learn more about Victor from his website www.victorhrconsultant.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
[i] Jerry Useem (June 2015) “Why It Pays to Be A Jerk,” The Atlantic.
[ii] Dennis McCafferty, (April 8, 2014) “The Top 10 CEOs at U.S Tech Companies”.
[iii] Rob Selzer and Allan H. Church (2009) “The Pearls and Perils of Identifying Potential” Industrial and Organizational Psychology, 2, 377-412.