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. “Historically in business, nice guys finished last. Just look at how many people list The Art of War as their inspiration,” says Semyon Dukach, CEO of e-mail delivery firm SMTP. “But globally there’s a 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.” His conclusion: “I don’t think it’s necessary to be an asshole any longer. In fact I think it now hurts a CEO more than it helps.”

BzzAgent’s Balter doesn’t buy that argument, though. “Internal conscience” tells people it’s “better to be the nice guy,” he says. “But the truth is still apparent that despicable, unkind behavior often bears out positive results.”

And that behavior is something others can even admire, at least jokingly. Balter tells the story of mentioning one chief executive’s name at a dinner party. The CEO was known for his “Israeli army style” of management. The response from another dinner guest, according to Balter: “That guy’s a fucking asshole, and I mean that in the best way possible.”

Balter himself wrote a popular op-ed piece last June, entitled “The Humility Imperative,” about his personal experience with the dangers of CEO arrogance. Yet in talking with him, I got the sense that Balter—and other leaders—wouldn’t mind holding on to the parts of assholicism that actually work.

Even Robert Sutton, author of The No Asshole Rule, wrote a chapter on “The Virtues of Assholes.” As he points out in the book, 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 a leader; and their focus on themselves helps them gain personal power and get ahead.

There isn’t much hard data to assess the correlation between CEO personalities and their companies’ success or failure, unfortunately. Lots of names and anecdotes, mind you (maybe a Top 10 list for next time), but no objective data.

Ultimately it’s all about perception. “I don’t think you have to be an asshole to be successful,” says Chris Lynch, the CEO of Vertica (now part of Hewlett-Packard). “But it’s hard not to be perceived as one at times.” That’s simply because of the nature of the job. “You hire people, you don’t hire people, you compete,” Lynch says. “It’s less what you do than how you do it. I do things my own way. But you have to be tough, fair, transparent, and you have to be compassionate.”

What lessons does this hold for the next generation of tech and business leaders? Perhaps that converting to assholicism is unwise—you can’t fake it anyway—but some of its tenets can be useful.

At least one young CEO in the Boston tech scene has a reputation for being tough, but not a jerk. Hardi Meybaum, the chief executive of GrabCAD, says he has made plenty of hard decisions, such as letting people go and changing the company’s business model. Not everyone will be happy with what he does, he says, but “it’s a matter of communicating your decisions.”

And when it comes to working with others, especially as a small startup, a strong hand is required. “When I start a partnership, I usually know what I want. And I usually get what I want,” Meybaum says. At the end of the day, he says, “You always need to think, what’s the best thing for the company?”

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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