My son sent me an interesting abstract the other day by Aaron James on the theory of A$$holes (Link to buy the book). It was an interesting read, distilled into the basic idea that all a$$holes have the following common traits:
- allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically;
- does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; and
- is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.
(Note, the use of the masculine pronoun is intentional, his theory is that the preponderance of a$$holes in the world are men. I disagree, but that’s a different topic for a different day).
He specifically referenced examples of Stanley McChrystal and Douglas MacArthur, and that got me thinking. There are MANY famous, and not so well known examples in business (and military) that I’m sure everyone can immediately name from their work experience. In many cases, the reason these folks are memorable is that they are in a leadership role in the company. Why? You would think on the surface that the behavior above would ensure a sad career relegated to responsibility for TPS reports, but obviously that’s not how it plays out.
We want our leaders to be bold, assured, decisive. I could spin the 3 common traits above and interpret them as follows:
- allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically; (I am bold enough to take the necessary action to be effective where others don’t)
- does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement; (I am clear on the right path and course of action)
- is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people. (The right thing to do is not always popular, and I’m here to lead and achieve results, not make friends)
There’s a fundamental assumption to the notion – that being an ‘A$$hole’ is a negative thing. I think you can be a great leader in your organization and – pick your label – also be a complete ass, tyrant, prick, etc. And I think there are instances where it’s needed, and respected. I seriously doubt the greatest A$$hole military and business leaders got to their elevated station and THEN became a$$holes. So either these folks are able to completely pull the wool over on their superiors for long periods of time, or – more likely – the perception you have of ‘so-and-so is such an a$$hole’ is more subjective and based on your relationship with that person, vs. an objective fact.
But wait! There are great leaders that don’t have a reputation for being an a$$hole – so isn’t that a cop out?
Maybe, but I propose that while it’s possible for some people, and we should always aspire to self-improvement, I believe there are some fundamental requirements of leadership that require a certain element of being an a$$hole to be successful. Of the 3 traits, the third is most important for a leader: you can’t let criticism sway you from your purpose and be effective
I think the application is key to how actions are interpreted. As a leader, do you provide context for your actions and approach? Do people know WHY you do what you do? If so, that will help mitigate strong reactions and unfortunate labels.
But the short version of the point I’m making is that the label is actually OK. Steve Jobs is recognized as a visionary, a great leader, a master of building great products, and changing the world. But every biography and interview I’ve ever read about him is consistent that he was a complete shit to work for – an A$$hole in the truest sense of the word.
So embrace the label. The next time someone calls you an A$$hole – thank them. They just complimented you without knowing it.