Does being a dick influence success as a leader?

Excuse the foul language, but that's how they talk

The short answer is maybe, or it depends. You see the one thing we know about leaders is that they come in all shapes and sizes. It is the diversity of leaders that makes leadership such a compelling topic. So compelling that a quick search for books on the topic returns 192,070 results and that number climbs daily. As someone who runs two companies that help individuals and organizations improve leadership capability, I have studied this topic over the past twenty-five years. (LeaderSurf and Groove Management)

Max Joseph, a film maker and director released a very informative and provocative look at the link between being a dick and being an effective leader. His short film Dicks does a great job showcasing the merits of different leadership styles. Max sets out to answer the question: Do you have to be a dick to be a successful leader? The question is quite deliberate because there is a clear difference between being successful and being effective. He doesn't ask if you need to be a dick to be an effective leader. Both successful and effective are subjective teams, but success if often measured in monetary terms while effectiveness is much more squishy to measure. Max’s video looks at leadership mainly through the lens (no pun intended) of a Hollywood film director. What he finds is that being a dick garners success in Hollywood where the only egos bigger than the directors' are the actors. The short film does delve into the business world by featuring Dr. Michael Maccoby author of Narcissistic Leader: Who succeeds and who fails. Dr. Maccoby talks about leaders who have what he calls an ego ideal. Narcissists reject the world as it is and have a vision of how the world should be. They are driven because they have a sense of purpose. Common traits among narcissists include:

  • Undeniable charisma
  • Unshakable conviction
  • Not listening to anyone (except themselves)
  • Being slightly paranoid
  • Over-controlling
  • Lacking in empathy
  • Being occasionally cruel

It is their powerful vision that leads the narcissist to be insensitive. The movie goes on to interview Aaron James, author of Assholes: A Theory . Max refers to Aaron James as the world’s leading authority on assholes. James believes the world is filled with both assholes and non-assholes. The assholes are entrenched in their belief that they are entitled. James struggles to answer Max’s question when asked, “Name a great leader who is not an asshole?” In fact he cannot come up with an answer. A sad indictment of what it takes to be a successful leader. At this point in the movie, my personal frustration had grown. I have met tons of successful leaders who are not assholes and I have met and had the pleasure of working for several that are assholes as well. What I have come to know and the point that is made later on in the movie is that being successful as a leader is not an either or proposition. Leadership is about individuality. One can be the kindest most charitable person and be successful as a leader or one can be a tyrant and narcissistic dick and also be a successful leader. 

The key as I see it is self awareness. Whether you believe in Jungian psychology and the notion that certain preferences are innate or you believe in learned behavior, who you are has been shaped through your life and experiences. If you were a bully in high school chances are your leadership style in business will be self centered as well. Yes I do believe people can change, but more importantly, I believe people can get more in touch with themselves. 

Be the leader who you were meant to be. By trying to study and emulate the styles of other leaders, you reject the power you have to be the best leader you can be. Leadership is about individuality.
— Brian Formato

The New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin published a story Bridgewater’s Ray Dalio Dives Deeper Into the ‘Principles’ of Tough Love about Ray Dalio Chairman of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fun in the world. The article tells the story of Dalio’s path to enlightenment about leadership and his upcoming book Principles: Life & Work. The article talks about some candid feedback that Dalio received in a memo that stated, “Ray sometimes says or does things to employees which makes them feel incompetent, unnecessary, humiliated, overwhelmed, belittled, pressed or otherwise bad. If he doesn’t manage people well, growth will be stunted and we will all be affected.” Dalio took this message to heart and implemented what he calls “radical transparency”. He recognized that being an arrogant jerk gave him a warped world view and it was not until he had hit financial bottom that he realized that his style was holding him back. Not many leaders are fortunate enough to have this kind of epiphany. Getting fired might be the best thing that can happen to a narcissistic leader. A humbling experience can change the way they see themselves and the world.

Max’s movie Dicks left a lasting impression upon me and I have used the short film in several leadership workshops. The movie gets people thinking more about their own leadership style. I love the reactions and interactions that occur after a leadership team watches the movie.

Personally, I am not a dick. I have too high of a need for inclusion and affinity to be that type of a leader. My own belief in what it takes to be a successful leader is a two ingredient philosophy. The first ingredient does allow for dicks, but the second one is much harder.

My leadership philosophy:

1) Self-awareness is the key to effective leadership. Only you can be you and once you figure out how to play to your personal strengths you will find your own unique leadership style. Even if that style involves being a dick.

2) Leadership should be a selfless act not a selfish one. Servant leaders are the most effective. They put others before themselves and take pride in the successes of others.

In my work I have found that I cannot teach people how to be, but I can help them become more in touch with who they are and how to positions that self-awareness as a strength. Years ago I had one coaching client who is clearly a dick. He is tremendously successful at work. He has very high standards and he is polarizing within his company. People either loved him or hated him, but they respected him. His challenges were more in his personal life where being a dick doesn’t lend itself to strong personal relationships. So as successful as he was at work, I question his personal happiness in his life.

James Bay the singer/songwriter’s hit song Let it Go has a great line in the chorus. “Why don’t you be you and I’ll be me”. When you are ready to be a successful leader, start being you.