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Do You Have to Be a Jerk to Be an Effective Leader?

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Image: Bob RosnerBusiness is tough in the best of times. And few would probably argue that these are the best of times. A part of the problem is the rift between workers and their bosses. From an old Harris Poll that found only 37% thought their management had integrity, emails to Workplace911 and almost any conversation overheard about work—bosses and employees appear to inhabit two parallel universes.

From David Letterman to the folks at Lehman, it seems like integrity in the corner office has taken a sabbatical.

Which brings us to the topic for this week’s blog—Do you HAVE TO be a jerk to be an effective leader today? Are these the exceptions or the rule of bossing?

I’ll argue the pro side first. Then the con. Then I’ll tell you my take on the question (as if you didn’t already know).

PRO-JERK ARGUMENT. There has never been a tougher time to be a boss. The combination of a faltering economy, competitive pressures, a workplace that keeps moving faster and faster, technology and workers who have less loyalty than at anytime in the history of the modern corporation (which is approximately 100 years according to Peter Drucker, for those who are scoring at home).

Workers like a firm hand on the rudder at work. They like an executive who is in charge and pointing the organization in the correct direction. And as they say, you’ve got to scramble a few eggs before you can make an omelet. So a bit of jerkiness is a required part of being a leader today.

ANTI-JERK ARGUMENT. Eisenhower, the General who led the Allied Forces in WWII and later served as President. A real guys, guy. As weird as it sounds by his bio, he is the source of the best all time quote of the anti-jerk position. He said, “Hitting people over the head isn’t leadership, it’s assault.”

What Eisenhower knew was that treating employees like rental cars has consequences. Some beaten down employees will take it out on customers, while others specialize in being passive aggressive—employees, to paraphrase Kafka, have their weapons too.


I believe that jerks can have a major positive impact over the short term. But after a while their whip cracking tends to fall on deaf ears. Or no ears at all as the workforce goes running for the exits. So be a jerk selectively.

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]

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One Strike and You’re Out

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Image: Bob RosnerNEWS FLASH: A recent Working Wounded column on the “battle of the sexes” generated the most negative mail that I’ve received in almost ten years.

I’ve gotten a lot of angry mail through the years—people who challenged my credentials, those who attacked my point of view and even some who really hated my photo. I thought I’d heard it all. That is until the “battle of the sexes” column ran a few weeks back.

The emails were angry. Really angry. You could tell it just by the subject lines: “My God, how could you get it so wrong” and “More female apologist crap.” And those were two of the printable ones.

I could argue in my own defense that the content for the column was based on a book written by a best-selling business guru—Tom Peters, the pioneering author of “Search For Excellence.” I could point out that although the tips in the article were provocative, they have been made in other publications. Finally I could say that men and women really do manage differently and that there is a value in exploring these differences.

But that isn’t the point of this blog. No, I would like to focus on one email that I received and what it says about where disagreements seem headed. So without further ado, here is the email in question:

“As a mental health therapist in private practice for over thirty years, I frequently deal with gender issues. Your column was one of the most biased collection of generalizations I have seen in some time. No doubt many males do not have it together but it appears from your writing that all women are positive in the work environment and men are just a negative. I asked my wife of 35 years for her reaction and she gave several examples opposite to each of the points you listed. I have written a letter to the editor…which carries your column in the Chicago area, asking that they consider dropping your column and considering one that gives a more balanced view of workplace issues.”

Criticism is a part of the life of a workplace columnist. A very big part. And I accept it. But I did find it fascinating that someone would read one column and decide that I should be fired. One strike and you’re out. Why should my column be dropped? According to this reader, because publications should provide a “more balanced” view. Is it balance he’s looking for or someone who is unbalanced and actually tips in his direction? (Ouch, and I was doing such a good job of not coming across as defensive up until that sentence.)

It’s fine for people to not like my stuff. Heck, sometimes I’m not even fond of it. But to take it to the point that you believe that the best way to handle a differing opinion is to fire the messenger, well that seems just a bit extreme to me. Especially when it comes from a seasoned mental health professional.

Diversity of ideas. A range of opinions. Seeing things from a different point of view. These are things that seem to be under attack today. Do I read things in the paper and on the web that make my blood boil? Yes. But as Voltaire famously said, “I disapprove of what you say, but will defend to the death your right to say it.”

About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]

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Five Years of Silence

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Image: Bob RosnerA while back Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas achieved a quiet milestone. He has gone five entire terms as a Supreme without asking a question.
Just to put this in perspective, no previous Supreme level judge had gone one entire session without asking a question.
Five years.
Hello darkness my old friend, I’m come to talk with you again, indeed.
(For those a lot younger than me, meaning almost everyone, that is a line from the Simon & Garfunkel song, “Sounds of Silence.”)
To me, this harkens back to a much simpler time. When many of us could take the Fifth Amendment at work and not only keep our jobs, we could leverage our silence into regular promotions. When Casper the Friendly Ghost wasn’t just a cartoon, but a workplace lifestyle.
People got ahead not by taking chances, but just showing up. Leave it up to the Japanese to perfectly sum it up in a catch phrase, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Or “Deru kugi wa utareru” if you enjoy quoting things in their original language.
After our second recession in a decade, silence is the antithesis of how to get ahead today. No, these days speaking out and up is the way to go.
Don’t get me wrong, the corporate immune system is still trained to go after anything that threatens the status quo. That will never change. But there are more people in management positions who realize that playing it safe and trying to sit on a lead in today’s turbulent marketplace is often the riskiest thing you can do.
I suggest that we all tip our hat to the old-school Supreme. Even though most of us can’t go silent anymore, we can appreciate his trip down memory lane. Way to keep the stiff upper lip, and lower one too, Clarence.
About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning Check the revised edition of his Wall Street Journal best seller, “The Boss’s Survival Guide.” If you have a question for Bob, contact him via [email protected]

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