Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Do You Have to Be a Jerk to Be an Effective Leader?

December 7th, 2009 | Bob Rosner

Image: Bob RosnerBusiness is tough in the best of times. And few would probably argue that these are the best of times. A part of the problem is the rift between workers and their bosses. From an old Harris Poll that found only 37% thought their management had integrity, emails to Workplace911 and almost any conversation overheard about work—bosses and employees appear to inhabit two parallel universes.

From David Letterman to the folks at Lehman, it seems like integrity in the corner office has taken a sabbatical.

Which brings us to the topic for this week’s blog—Do you HAVE TO be a jerk to be an effective leader today? Are these the exceptions or the rule of bossing?

I’ll argue the pro side first. Then the con. Then I’ll tell you my take on the question (as if you didn’t already know).

PRO-JERK ARGUMENT. There has never been a tougher time to be a boss. The combination of a faltering economy, competitive pressures, a workplace that keeps moving faster and faster, technology and workers who have less loyalty than at anytime in the history of the modern corporation (which is approximately 100 years according to Peter Drucker, for those who are scoring at home).

Workers like a firm hand on the rudder at work. They like an executive who is in charge and pointing the organization in the correct direction. And as they say, you’ve got to scramble a few eggs before you can make an omelet. So a bit of jerkiness is a required part of being a leader today.

ANTI-JERK ARGUMENT. Eisenhower, the General who led the Allied Forces in WWII and later served as President. A real guys, guy. As weird as it sounds by his bio, he is the source of the best all time quote of the anti-jerk position. He said, “Hitting people over the head isn’t leadership, it’s assault.”

What Eisenhower knew was that treating employees like rental cars has consequences. Some beaten down employees will take it out on customers, while others specialize in being passive aggressive—employees, to paraphrase Kafka, have their weapons too.

AND THE WINNER IS…

I believe that jerks can have a major positive impact over the short term. But after a while their whip cracking tends to fall on deaf ears. Or no ears at all as the workforce goes running for the exits. So be a jerk selectively.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via bob@workplace911.com.

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3 Responses to “Do You Have to Be a Jerk to Be an Effective Leader?”

  1. Mark Says:

    Nice Post, Bob. To answer your question, no you do not. Check out this blog post for proof: http://bit.ly/2wKreM I’m glad when you weighed the pros of each management approach you can to the same conclusion of the nonprofit I work for that studies effective small business leadership: that being a jerk (also known as a workplace bully) produces some short-term gains but far fewer, substantial long-term gains.

  2. Michael Leech Says:

    In the 6th Century B.C.E., the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wrote:

    “When the best leader takes charge, hardly anybody notices.
    “The next best leader is obeyed out of love.
    “After that, there’s the leader obeyed out of fear.
    “The worst leader is one who is hated.

    “When the best leader’s work is done, the people say “We did it ourselves.”

    Still true. In private workplaces and in government.

  3. Caleb Cotton Says:

    A sexual harassment case can be so unnerving. Make sure you’ve got an attorney like Bob on your side.

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