The first rule of leadership: Jerk, know thyself.

The first rule of leadership: Jerk, know thyself.

I’m very pleased to feature guest blogger, Paula Last. This post originally appeared on her website, Digital Boom.

Anyone who’s worked in an office knows that sometimes the promotions don’t go to the right people.

There are times that the uber-qualified people move up the ladder, but we’ve all known “that guy or “that gal” who just knows how to play the game. Before you know it, they’re your boss. And if he or she turns out to be a bully, you might have a real problem on your hands.

But wait a second. Isn’t being a jerk the way to get things done?

Some people say that it worked for this guy.

Steve Jobs

While I need to come clean and admit that Steve Jobs’ biography is sitting on my shelf unread, I’ve heard the story that Jobs was known for having two sides. There was ‘Good Steve’ and ‘Bad Steve’, AKA the guy who could be a real jerk.

A couple of years ago, someone recommended a book to me that pretty much denounced this kind of leadership. This guy, Robert I Sutton, PhD, proposes another way, a better way, to leading a company to success.

His book is called The No Asshole Rule, and the title pretty much speaks for itself.

Before I talk about the book, let me say this. I like a title that gets right to the point as much as the next person, but for this post, I’m going to use the word ‘jerk’, so as to not cause any offence or impression that I condone that kind of language in a professional setting. Okay.

This book opened up a whole whack of questions for me. How do you know if you’re working for a jerk, or just someone who expects a lot from you? What do you do if it’s the co-worker that sits beside you, and you want to keep the team on an even keel? And finally the scary question, what do you do if after reading the book, you’re wondering if the jerk is (gulp) you.

Fortunately, there are two tests:

Test One:  After talking to the alleged ‘jerk’, does the “target” feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person? In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?

Test Two: Does the alleged ‘jerk’ aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?

I know I’ve been in work situations and conversations where I walked away feeling ‘less than.’ The important lesson for me was that it didn’t just affect how I felt about myself, it also affected how I approached my work. Anytime I’ve been put down for my ideas, I’m a lot less likely to offer any in the future. And more importantly, my creativity and initiative starts to die a slow and painful death.

The second step is to figure out if the bad behaviour was just a one-off, or if the belittling or intimidation is going to be a part of your daily life. General observation should answer these questions, and if it’s the latter, here’s Sutton’s advice:  run.

Finally, we all need to look in the mirror once in a while and see if it’s us. Let’s face it, we can all be a jerk sometimes. No one is expecting you to be a saint. The lesson here is, ‘jerk’ know thyself.

Sutton sums it up with these key messages:

  • A few demeaning creeps can overwhelm the warm feelings generated by hoards of civilized people.
  • Talking about the rule is nice, but following up on it is what really matters.
  • The rule lives — or dies — in the little moments.
  • Should you keep a few ‘jerks’ around? Sutton says it’s too risky.
  • Enforcing the ‘no jerk’ rule isn’t just management’s job.
  • Embarrassment and pride are powerful motivators.
  • “Jerks” are us. We need to first look in the mirror, and then avoid ‘swarms of nasty people’ like the plague. If you find yourself in a nest, get out as fast as you can.

I like the idea that leadership is a shared responsibility, but in practice, what does it look like? Here are my first thoughts:  no idea is dismissed (only built upon), team members are accountable to each other, we have some fun once in a while, and everybody knows when to enforce ‘the rule.’

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