Do you have to be a jerk to be a great leader?

I was less than 10 minutes into a workshop about making your department a positive place to work when a hand went up. “But don’t you have to be kind of a jerk to be a great leader?”

“Yeah, you know, like Steve Jobs,” someone echoed.

A lot of people have this idea that great leaders need to be jerks.  Where does it come from?

First of all, the roots of the study of leadership go back to the study of people who accomplished great things as leaders. It’s called the “Great Man” theory of leadership. You look around for someone who has accomplished great things, investigate their personalities and life story, and from that, try to extrapolate what made people put their faith in them and follow their vision in the face of adversity (i.e. great leadership). This tendency is echoed in today’s bestseller list, which is perpetually packed with biographies and autobiographies of athletes, politicians, CEOs, etc. The problem with this method is that many famous leaders were sometimes jerks. (As a friend of mine likes to say, great deeds ≠ great men.) And if we use their behavior to extrapolate what great leadership looks like, we easily might get the idea that acting like a jerk is a critical part of great leadership, when in fact research suggests otherwise, as we shall shortly discuss.

Second, we’ve all had evil bosses. Think back to your first job. Chances are you had very little autonomy or power. You were probably monitored very closely, perhaps to the point where you only heard from your boss if you were doing something wrong, and then you had to bite your tongue and kiss up, or else. This might give a person the idea that the kind of people who get ahead are those who love controlling other people and who don’t mind being totally fake to get what they want – i.e., jerks. (This is not true, but if our first experiences in the workplace are like this, we might be forgiven for anchoring on it.) 

Third – and perhaps most important – human beings are hardwired to pay more attention to negative events than to positive ones. Then when we think of leaders, we are more likely to remember the times when they were ugly than the times when they were excellent humans. It also means that when excellent humans do something destructive, we are likely to remember that moment more clearly than a similar time when they did something pretty darn lovely.

So those are three reasons why we might think leader = jerk. What does the research say?

Study after study in organizational psychology shows that evil bosses are costly for the company and don’t get as good results as good bosses do.

If that’s true, then what makes for a good leader? Good leaders take care of their direct reports. They don’t treat them like a number – they give them individual consideration. They don’t micromanage – they give their team the authority and autonomy to carry out certain aspects of the work in the ways they choose. They develop their followers by giving them stretch goals and helping them learn new skills, so that they can learn, grow, and ultimately act independently of the leader. Good leaders act ethically and keep in mind that the extra powers they are granted means that anything they do is visible for imitation or judgment, so they take their role modeling seriously. Good leaders also act for the good of the team in the organization, not just for the good of themselves. They are consistent, they provide praise for a job well done, and they don’t hog the credit.

Leaders who act like this get more than just compliance out of their followers: they get loyalty, performance, and a deep bench of talent. They are called transformational leaders because they help transform the people around them into high functioning teams.

So if good bosses are great for the bottom line, why do we still think it’s good to be bad? It’s because leadership is not all hugs and harmony: we also value strength and toughness in our leaders.

Leaders need to stand up for a vision and stay true to it in the face of changing circumstances. They need to think and act strategically: to come up with multiple pathways to achieve their goals and enroll other people in that vision in order to carry it out. Leaders need to demand performance that meets a certain standard.

Leaders also need to perform emotional labor – holding back your natural reaction to manage a situation. This can mean acting calm when criticized, showing teeth to protect your team or your resources from attack, or being able to become whomever your audience needs you to be for the good of the project.

In talking about strength and toughness, I’ve described the light side of those skills. But those skills also have a dark side. Psychologists call it the Dark Triad: Machiavellianism, psychopathy and narcissism.

Who’s great at acting strategically? Machiavellians. They are loyal to no one but themselves. They are consummate observers, and every bit of information they glean goes into constructing ways they can win.

Who’s great at emotional labor? Psychopaths. They are master manipulators, able to read you like a book and act in ways that genuinely lead you to believe whatever they want you to believe.

Who’s great at having a vision and setting direction? Narcissists. They think that the boring rules that apply to other people do not apply to them and their vision. Yes, clinical-level narcissists often have low self-esteem. However it seems that they also have a natural layer of protection that helps them reach their goals, in that they treat other people’s opinions of them the same as they treat other people’s opinions on any other topic: with complete indifference.

Not everyone who has these traits has a personality disorder or other clinical abnormality, but there do tend to be more folks who rate high on these Dark Triad traits in upper management than in the general population. As they say, dumb psychopaths go to prison; smart psychopaths go to the boardroom. However, leaders who abuse these capabilities do not get the great performance from their team enjoyed by leaders who use their powers for good.

What does that mean for you and me, the average person who wants to lead and do good in the world?

First and most importantly: Do not shy away from leadership just because you don’t want to become a jerk. The world needs good folks in leadership positions, and there are plenty of ways to be strong enough to get the results you want while doing tangible good in the world. The way to get there is to work on both your leadership skills and on yourself as a human being.

Second: Do you recognize yourself in some of these Dark Triad traits? You wouldn’t be alone. Although these categories are also used as clinical diagnoses for mental illness, a great number of people score high on these traits are perfectly normal and go on to do great things without being a menace to society. You can choose to use your powers for good. Look beyond the short-term results – how can you use your charm, vision and power of persuasion to benefit other people such as your clients? Your team? The world? Doing so will probably make you happier and more effective, anyway.

 Third: Examine and influence your organizational culture. Does your company reward people on single-metric, short-term goals such as monthly quotas or quarterly earnings, and ignore metrics around teamwork, mentoring, citizenship, relationship building and self-development? Does taking big risks pay off big in your industry? Do you use rank-and-yank performance reviews for talent management? Do you tolerate ugly behavior and minor ethical breaches as long as folks hit their numbers? If so, Dark Triad types probably flock to your company like snowboarders to Mammoth.  

The upshot: The best leaders are not jerks, although there are some behaviors leaders must exhibit that can seem kind of jerk-ish when analyzed out of context or taken to extremes. Developing your skills and your whole self is the way to get great results without joining the dark side.

Kim Perkins