A few years ago, a friend's successful startup was bought by a Fortune 500 company. I will never forget the conversation I had with him when he was well into his tenure as a top executive in the new organization.
"I'm making more money than I ever dreamed," he said. "And yet the things I see every day, they're wrong. With every decision I make, my morals get a little looser. I just don't know if this life is for me."
Here was a perfectly average guy thrust into a position of power, at the moment of realization that maybe he wasn't enough of a jerk to run a large company.
For those who read Walter Isaacson's biography of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, this issue may sound familiar. By anyone's definition, Jobs was one of the technology world's greatest success stories, taking product innovation and creativity to an entirely new level. But, and this is a big but, he was also a hard-hearted narcissist who treated loyal employees like garbage. Was Jobs' harsh approach necessary and would Apple have done as well without it?
Some Say Yes
Gregory Huang of Xconomy reported on a meet-up of Boston-area tech CEOs, in which the participants concluded that a chief executive has to be somewhat of a jerk to succeed. "Internal conscience tells people that it's better to be the nice guy, but the truth is still apparent that despicable, unkind behavior often bears out positive results," said Dave Balter, an attendee of the meetup and the CEO of social media marketing company BzzAgent.
But even nice-guy proponent Bob Sutton has pointed out that "bullying bosses inspire fear, which can motivate their staff and intimidate competitors; their behavior can make them appear strong and competent, which is undoubtedly important for leader," as reported by Huang.
Others Say No
Many experts, however, maintain that being a jerk of a leader is not only unnecessary but detrimental. In David Weidner recent Wall Street Journal article about Steve Jobs, Harvard Business School professor David Garvin said: "You judge a leader by what they've accomplished as well as how they've accomplished it. Mr. Jobs ran roughshod over his people. In terms of creating an environment that is developmentally oriented that builds your people's capabilities, he didn't do a very good job."
In the same piece, Stanford University business professor Roderick Kramer agreed. "It is certainly not desirable to be a jerk because many talented, creative individuals will opt not to work for you and will leave the organization."
In Huang's article for Xconomy, Semyon Dukach, CEO of e-mail delivery firm SMTP, added: "Globally, the trend towards less conflict and deception, and more cooperation and integration, accelerated by the Internet. In business it translates into rewarding more nice qualities in CEOs."
My Two Cents
Unfortunately, I wasn't able to locate any research on the relationship between a CEO's temperament and his/her company's profits, but my gut feeling is that a CEO needs to be pretty darn tough. I, for instance, could not be a CEO because I find decisions that hurt people impossible to make, and I'm always trying to please everyone. As a leader, you have to be willing to accept that being a jerk is sometimes in the best interest of the organization, and that even if you try hard to be fair and compassionate, occasionally you will fail.
I feel that the jury is still out, however, on the question raised by my friend, because there is a critical difference between being strict and acting immorally. So my question for you is: after witnessing and hopefully learning from the downfall of CEOs throughout the financial crisis, do you think today's CEOs still have to compromise their personal ethics in order to succeed?
Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can't Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success. Money magazine Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.
Illustration by Russell Christian for OPEN Forum