No, It Doesn’t Really “Pay to Be a Jerk”

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Earlier this year, the Atlantic Monthly published a long provocative piece on “Why it Pays to Be a Jerk.” Breathlessly, the author claims, “new research confirms what they say about nice guys.” As I begin another year of teachingtomorrow’s business leaders at the Stanford Business School, I find myself wondering anew why this cynical conventional “wisdom” keeps getting trotted out.

The article celebrates the observation of baseball manager Leo Durocher that “nice guys finish last.” (He didn’t say it quite so cleverly.) It contrasts two approaches to leadership, one for losers and one for winners, quickly summarized as follows:

From my perch, this advice is nonsense, especially if you care about long-term results, or want to recruit and retain knowledge workers in the 21st century.

Machiavellian machinations seem to be a favorite of coaching “heroes” in sports. There’s Bobby Knight in basketball, whose outrageous remarks at the University of Indiana – as well as such antics as choking a player and tossing a chair across the court – got him fired. Billy Martin, the manager of the New York Yankees fired five different times, was just as well known for bar fights and alienating players. Woody Hayes, Ohio State’s Patton-like football coach, was finally sacked after he punched a player.

Each of these leaders had some measure of success for some period of time, but they all ultimately damaged the organizations they represented. On the personal side, they were hardly paragons of virtue. These three archetypes of the Atlantic’s “winner” column, along with Durocher, had 11 marriages between them. Only Hayes’s wife put up with living with a jerk. “Divorce Woody?” she asked. “Never! But there were plenty of times I wanted to murder him.”

By contrast, in the ignored “loser” column squarely sits the most successful – and revered – coach ever, John Wooden. He won 10 national basketball championships at UCLA, including seven in a row from 1967 to 1973. More important, he was loved by a long list of all-star players who credited their success in life to him. Yet, under the Atlantic’s putative “new research,” Wooden’s approach to leadership qualified him as a “loser.”

There are many others like Wooden, including Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, UNC basketball coach Dean Smith, and Dallas Cowboys coach Tom Landry. Nice guys all. Winners all – and beyond athletics. They taught their players about life after the game and how to achieve what they wanted but couldn’t on their own. Their relationships were grounded in high trust. The players thus coached were enriched by the association. The organizations left by the coaches endured.

So why do some ivory-tower types (like the ones named by the Atlantic) seem to keep glorifying jerks? It may be that many of the studies of power cited by academics as evidence of triumphant jerks are laboratory studies that rely on one-shot interactions in which one’s reputation doesn’t affect subsequent interactions—almost the opposite of what happens in real organizations in which one’s reputation can be a powerful determinant of future success.

It may also be as simple as mistakenly inferring a rule from the exception. Yes, Durocher and the others won a lot of games. Yes, the tyrannical Steve Jobs, reportedly about to be taken down a notch in a new movie, built a corporate colossus. But I also think some social scientists like to peer through a glass darkly. Jerks make for more good stories – they’re mysterious, colorful, controversial.

I’ve lived in the business world a long time and can tell you it’s not so grim. I’ve been a CFO, a CEO, a board chair, a lead director, and an owner in thousands of real estate partnerships and hundreds of companies over the past four decades. In these roles, I’ve worked with business leaders young and old, in organizations large and small.

From my own hands-on experience, I’ve learned that people are smart. They spot phonies. They don’t like bullies. For a time, a jerk may get results, but when the chips are down, people flock to those they trust. As trust is tested over time, truly powerful working relationships develop. It is these experience-tested relationships that help teams to win in the long run – all the more so as measured by happy and meaningful lives.

Business is a team sport and the strictly hierarchal organizations are dying out. In a world of knowledge workers, the most talented people prize meaning and fulfillment at work. And just as with athletic teams, a key determinant of business success is the ability to recruit talent. If leaders can’t develop and maintain a strong network of relationships, they have little chance of winning. Want to become a leader, in the C-suite or on the field? Don’t be a jerk.

By Joel Peterson