Being an Overconfident and Dominating “Jerk” Doesn’t Guarantee Success

Image source: Open source

There is still a common belief that confident, dominating and aggressive, leaders — mostly men — are the most successful, and that even their jerkish behavior can be forgiven if they get results. In the business world results equals financial success for shareholders. However, new research challenges that common belief, and shows that in the long run, most“jerks” are not successful, even if some notable ones were.

In my book, Eye of the Storm: How Mindful Leaders Can Transform Chaotic Workplaces, and in my article, “The Rise of Toxic Leaders and Toxic Workplaces, ”I document the prevalence of leaders in organizations and government: Books, articles, seminars and speeches abound espousing the virtues of great leaders, effusive in their description of men and women who are selfless, humble, empathetic, compassionate, emotionally intelligent and altruistic. Hordes of consultants, university professors, researchers and coaches make their living espousing the need for choosing these kinds of leaders.

The truth of the matter is that we are hypocrites, and we are witnessing the rise of toxic leaders and workplaces. We tend to choose or follow a very different kind of leader. We hire and promote the psychopaths, the narcissists, the bullies and the autocrats dedicated to self-interest, and whose long-term impact can damage and even destroy organizations (and even countries).

Tomas Chamorrow-Premuzic, in his article in the Harvard Business Review, “Why Do Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders?” examines the issue of why women are under-represented in management, and concludes it is “our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is, we commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are betters leaders than women.” He says “Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leaders’ talent — the ability to build and maintain high performing teams and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest.”

Chamorrow-Premuzic refers to a study which included 23,000 participants in 26 different countries. The study concluded that women are more humble than men. He also refers to a another study of managers in 40 countries which provided evidence to show than men were more consistently manipulative and arrogant than women.

Chamorrow-Premuzic argues in his article, “the mythical image of a ‘leader’ embodies many of the characteristics commonly found in personality disorders, such as narcissism (Steve Jobs or Vladimir Putin), psychopathy (fill in the name of your favorite despot here), histrionic (Richard Branson or Steve Ballmer) or Machiavellian (nearly any federal-level politician) personalities. The sad thing is not that these mythical figures are unrepresentative of the average manager, but that the average manager will fail precisely for having these characteristics.”

In another study by UC Berkeley Cameron Anderson, and colleagues Oliver John and Christopher J. Soto entitled “People with disagreeable personalities (selfish, combative and manipulative) do not have an advantage in pursuing power at work,” published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, concluded “CEOS who are nasty and bullying create cultures of abuse and tend to lead their organizations to fail. In two longitudinal studies, we found that disagreeableness did not predict the attainment of power. Selfish, deceitful and aggressive individuals were no more likely to attain power than were generous, trustworthy and nice individuals.”

For example, people who read former Apple CEO Steve Jobs’ biography by Walter Issacson could come to the conclusion that they too could become successful if they behaved like an abusive jerk as Jobs did often, the authors said.

Rather than using the term “jerk,” Anderson and his colleagues used descriptors of disagreeable personalities, which they describe as “the tendency to behave in quarrelsome, cold, callous, and selfish ways” One of the personality assessments they referred to was the Big Five Personality TEST (BFPT) which measures the five personality traits: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism and agreeableness.

Around the year 2000 some researchers routinely gave undergraduate and MBA students personality tests yearly. And it’s those later two features that enabled Cameron and his colleagues to think long-term. in 2018, they contacted these students and got them to do follow-up surveys with a total of about 670 participants.

Coauthor Oliver P. John, a professor of psychology who directs the Berkeley Personality Lab, had developed the Big Five Personality Test. He had the students compete a second personality assessment, the NEO Personality Inventory-Revised (NEO PI-R).

The results of this second study showed that people attained power through fear and intimidation, aggressive behavior or building alliances with influential people and compared it people who acquired power by helping others and competency. They found that even though jerks engaged in dominating behavior, their lack of helping others cancelled out any advantage they had.

“Having a strong set of alliances is generally important to power in all areas of life,” he says. “Disagreeable politicians might have more difficulty maintaining necessary alliances because of their toxic behavior.” “This myth that bullying, nasty and selfish individuals get ahead isn’t supported,” says Anderson, “For people seeking power, you don’tneed to play dirty to get it. ”The bad news,” Anderson says, “is that organizations are putting disagreeable people in charge at the same rate that they are putting agreeable people in charge.” People in powerful positions can do a lot of damage if they are selfish and bullying,” he says.

“The bad news here is that organizations do place disagreeable individuals in charge just as often as agreeable people,” Anderson says. “In other words, they allow jerks to gain power at the same rate as anyone else, even though jerks in power can do serious damage to the organization.”

“My advice to managers would be to pay attention to agreeableness as an important qualification for positions of power and leadership,” Anderson says. “Prior research is clear: agreeable people in power produce better results and provide more organizational stability.”

Read my latest book: Toxic Bosses: Practical Wisdom for Developing Wise, Moral and Ethical Leaders,

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Ray Williams

Author/Retired Executive Coach-Helping People Live Better Lives and Serve Others