The Upside of Unlikability

Not everybody is going to love you as a leader. Does that mean it’s OK to be disliked? Maybe. Sometimes. Just a little.

Good morning, jerk.

I mean no offense. I’m just echoing the suggestion of a recent article in the Atlantic that considers the virtues of being a not-so-nice CEO. In “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk,” Jerry Useem discusses some recent scholarship on the kinds of behaviors that make for effective leaders, and those don’t tend to involve selfless acts of kindness. “Semi-obnoxious behavior not only can make a person seem more powerful, but can make them more powerful, period,” he writes. “The same goes for overconfidence. Act like you’re the smartest person in the room, a series of striking studies demonstrates, and you’ll up your chances of running the show. … “And ‘agreeableness,’ other research shows, is a trait that tends to make you poorer.”

The person with the most inflated sense of her own abilities tended to emerge as the group’s de facto leader.

The proximate cause of this latest thinking, Useem writes, is Steve Jobs, subject of at least three biopics, one major biography, and a general consensus that his greatness as a leader was at least partially a function of his domineering-to-bullying leadership style. But this is nothing new: Every generation seems to have a brief, awkward love affair with a jerk CEO, from “Neutron” Jack Welch to George Steinbrenner to Henry Ford to Thomas Edison. A charismatic persona and brilliant mind, the thinking goes, is not only fuel for great leadership, but license to be unethical and unlikable besides.

Careful, though. Charisma has never been all it’s cracked up to be. And regardless of its title, Useem’s article doesn’t prescribe jerkiness as leadership strategy, or at least not exclusively. While the likes of Steve Jobs are “outliers,” he writes, there is something to be said for the kind of person who has a take-charge personality, and who doesn’t play by the formal rules—so long as the people below see themselves as beneficiaries of the behavior. In one research study where small groups were assigned math problems, for instance, “the person with the most inflated sense of her own abilities tended to emerge as the group’s de facto leader,” Useem writes. “Being the first to blurt out an answer, right or wrong, was taken as a sign of superior quantitative skill.”

And business scholar Adam Grant argues that successful leaders can be “disagreeable givers”—that is, fairly ruthless in their actions, but accepted so long as those actions support the people around them. Grant expanded on this in 2014 article, “How to Succeed Professionally by Helping Others,” in which he argued that providing support for others just makes good business sense: You build contacts, learn new skills, and develop the capacity to recruit others to get behind you.

You’ll notice that none of those skills involve being “nice”—leadership means making difficult decisions, some of which are bound to offend. (If somebody around you doesn’t occasionally think you’re a jerk, there’s a good chance you’re not working hard enough.) But success isn’t a function of thoughtless and callous you are; what matters is how well you support your teams in the midst of those difficult decisions. As Useem puts it, “Steal cookies for your colleagues.”

In an interview with AssociationsNow.com last week, David DeLorenzo, CAE, associate executive director at the American Urological Association, discussed one of the key challenges for a rising executive. “You’ve got to be able to communicate up and down, and you’ve got to be effective at it,” he said. “Communicating is one thing. Effective communication is a whole different thing. I know a lot of people who can talk a good game, but they can’t talk to the point where they can actually make a difference or make a change or convince the rest of the team and build trust and get to that next level.”

Exactly so. Leaders are perpetual spokespersons for their personal leadership style, which can be challenging when some unpopular choices need to be made. In those moments, there’s nothing wrong with displaying a little attitude and initiative, and doing things that are out of the ordinary.

Just, please, don’t be a jerk about it.

What do you do to manage the perceptions of your staff and stakeholders? Is there value to the occasionally “jerky” moment? Share your experiences in the comments.

Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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