Assholicism: Do CEOs Need to Be Jerks to Be Successful?

It’s a question as old as human nature. You’ve heard the stories, you know all the famous examples. Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, Michael Eisner, the list goes on. All difficult characters with strong personalities—and hugely successful companies.

So, in today’s ultra-competitive tech and business world, does a CEO have to be an asshole to be successful?

First of all, let’s get our terminology straight. There’s no hard and fast definition of the term, but you know it when you see it. Bullying or backstabbing behavior towards subordinates or partners? Check. Public humiliation of employees? Sure thing. Tantrums, abrasive language, egomania, and other unprofessional displays? Yep. (See a related Xconomy story about bad bosses.) But more subtly, there’s stuff like not returning messages, passing people off to underlings, talking way too much, and saying different things to different people. And more generally, not caring what other people think. Which, of course, can also be a very good thing.

Some months ago, a group of prominent Boston-area tech CEOs discussed this question of “assholicism”—rhymes with Catholicism—at their regular meet-up. Some may have felt they should be tougher leaders or negotiators. Some wanted to pick up management tips and strategies. Others were reflective about their own styles that have served them well. So…is it necessary to be a jerk? Apparently the discussion took all day (and even came up in multiple meetings).

The upshot: Yes, a CEO has to be somewhat of a jerk to succeed. At least, it can be helpful—but there were plenty of caveats.

“It was concluded on some level that this was the case,” says Dave Balter, the CEO of BzzAgent (owned by Tesco’s Dunnhumby), who was part of the group. “But there was a huge amount of debate and not everyone agreed.”

One of those dissenters would be Brian Halligan, CEO of HubSpot, the fast-growing marketing tech firm. Reached by e-mail, Halligan said that being a jerk “used to work” for leaders, but that “it is not acceptable today.”

His main reasons—neither of which I would call deeply fundamental to human psychology or the nature of leadership—are that “smart GenY-ers don’t put up with that stuff,” and that corporate information flow and reputations have become more transparent, so CEOs can’t get away with bad behavior anymore. It “used to be that information was centralized at the asshole,” he writes.

I also pinged Brad Feld, the tech entrepreneur-investor, while he was in town. He was unequivocal that good leaders don’t have to be jerks. “Some of the sweetest people in the world are super successful CEOs,” he says.

So perhaps there are deeper trends at work here. … Next Page »

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Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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