Assholes in Business: A Necessary Evil?

A question that has been rattling around my consciousness for a few months now is related to the idea of success, and what is required in order to be successful in business. To phrase it succinctly, it is, “Do you have to be an asshole to succeed in business?”

Certainly, the evidence would appear to support this. Jack Welch, before being reinvented as ‘the greatest leader that GE ever had’, used to be known as ‘Neutron Jack’ for his explosive temper and propensity for firing people. Jimmy Pattison, the Canadian billionaire entrepreneur, makes it a habit to fire his bottom 10% of staff every year. Kevin O’Leary makes a (clearly profitable) living shamelessly self-promoting his ability to be obnoxious. And this list would not be complete without Steve Jobs, the recently deceased founder and CEO of Apple.

To look at what is written about the people above, however, it is extremely clear that we do not censure these business figures, however, we celebrate them. They are the ones that grace the covers of Fortune and Business Week, and appear on CNN, Fox and CBC. They are the ones whose ‘secrets for success’ are distilled into the latest business bestsellers being shilled to jet-lagged executives at airport newsstands. The are the ones who people idolize, strive to emulate and seek to become.

The question that has to be asked is, “Why?” Are assholes really more successful? Or, to phrase it alternatively, can you attain success without being an asshole?

Jim Collins would tell you that the answer to that question is yes. Based upon the research that led to his books “Built to Last” and particularly “Good to Great“, he identified that the leadership traits of some of the most astonishingly successful (in terms of growth and profitability) companies were what he referred to as ‘Level 5’ leaders — they were humble, collaborative, open, willing to delegate and willing to share credit. And yet these aren’t the leaders that get celebrated on the covers of the major business magazines. They just quietly go about their business of running their organizations. What we do get to read about instead are the assholes.

A reason for this might be that the assholes sell more magazines and newspapers.  That they are more entertaining. That they give better sound bites. And perhaps all of this is true. But do they actually build better companies? Are they better leaders? Are these the practices and behaviours that actually lead to success? Or do we just wish they were?

The dominant emotions in business seem to be fear, anxiety, desire, disappointment and anger. What is disturbing is that these are not viewed as bad things. These qualities are perceived as being motivating. Stress is considered to be a good thing. It is taught in business schools that it is better to be respected than it is to be liked.

I have spent much of my career valuing and embracing stress as a motivator. Wanting more, being anxious about the competition and getting angry when things don’t work out. I’ll be honest; it’s not working for me anymore. I feel more successful having figured that out for myself. I feel more productive not desperately needing to fill each and every hour. I feel more relaxed not trying to compress work into every waking moment. Although I will still admit to days waking up where this feels like the objective, but those days are less frequent than they once were.

But I do seriously wonder at whether that will strike many as odd. Or make them think that I’ve ‘given up’. Or that I am not as successful as I once was…

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