Assholes, Dinosaurs, Cables & Entrepreneurialism as Activism

On March 10, 2007 by Christy

I’ve known as few nasty people in my life. Who hasn’t? I have always been surprised, however, at how many people in positions of power (leadership?) are actually not nice people. Indeed, I have actually found that in many situations people are leaders of companies or organisations because they believe/assume they should be rather than being the best person for the job, and because they bully, intimidate and manipulate people into supporting them. Fear is the oily rag that keeps these people going — both their own and that of those around them. But is this the only reason why these people stay in power? Are there business reasons? In other words, do they do good with their bad?

In his article/manifesto, ‘The Upside of Assholes: Is there Virtue in Bad Workplace Behavior?‘ on one of my favourite sites, ChangeThis, Bob Sutton shares his research and views on assholes in business. He has researched apparently well-known assholes such as the CEO of Apple Steve Jobs; the CEO of Disney, Michael Eisner; and the CEO of Oracle, Larry Ellison. Sutton presents the benefits of nastiness in business, examples such as fear-driven performance and bringing clueless and lazy people to their senses. But Sutton also outlines how nasty people delude themselves about the relationship between their apparent success and their abhorrent behaviour. He also discusses how the effects of behaviour (how other people act) feed their delusion that they are a success. He outlines some of the ways, too, that nasty behaviour costs a company. This well-considered exploration is then ended with the only logical and wonderfully affirming conclusion:

In closing, I want to make my personal beliefs crystal clear. Even if there were no performance advantages to barring, expelling, and reforming nasty and demeaning people, I’d still want organizations to enforce the no asshole rule. I believe that my life and the lives of the people I care about are too short and too precious to spend our days surrounded by jerks. We all die in the end, and despite whatever “rational” virtues assholes may enjoy, I prefer to avoid mean-spirited jerks and will continue to question why so many of us tolerate, justify, and glorify so much demeaning behavior from so many people. After all, even if acting like an asshole helps you win, in my book, you are still an asshole and I don’t want to get near you.

People do work with assholes though, and even go so far as to defend them. I’ve even heard people come up with reasons as to why some people are assholes, reasons such as: geniuses are temperamental. Hmmm. I completely disagree. A team-centered approach, an approach which treats everyone with dignity and respect, that values everyones input takes intelligence. Nastiness doesn’t take brain power. I recall now a talk given by David Perkins, ‘What Makes an Organisation Smart?’ at the 12th International Conference on Thinking (the 13th will be held in Sweden this year). Perkins asked how there can be smart people in dumb groups? He answered this with the ‘dinosaur paradox’: negative archetypes, even though less effective, tend to drive out positive archetypes. He said that negative archetypes keep power-hungry leaders in power. But more important, to me, is the point that dinosaurs take over because of the cognitive load of positive archetypes. Positive archetypes tend to be more complex. Taking different perspectives is more complex and complexity hurts the head. Also, Perkins explains that in stressful conditions, we find it more difficult to maintain complex thinking. In other words, my words, positive leaders are more intelligent!

But on this point of cognitive load. Another thing I noticed with the presentations I have given recently is how important it is to not be distracted beforehand. Having a great technical team that can deal with software, net access and cables is really important. I have never have a good experience with a cinema or theatre. They’re just inexperienced with running corporate events. But of the places I have been where the support has been excellent, I’ve still concerned myself with doing as much as I can myself and helping others. Also, I have been recently reluctant to make last minute changes to the tech (such as changing from a microphone to a lapel mic). This business with cables and reluctance to disturb the peace thwarts my creativity, my creation. I don’t have to let this happen though and should work towards freeing up my mind for change and complex thinking. Geez, I sound like I can’t handle a thought!

After all this contemplation and whingeing (take your perspective), I came across a great summary of ideas by Jules Marshall. Marshall gave a great concept explication of some of the talks from last year’s Picnic (crossmedia week) in Amsterdam. In light of my thoughts, the following stood out: 

Passion with out ideals will lead us into (greater) vacuous irrelevance (at best), or drive us more quickly off the cliff of eroded civil liberties even faster.

Ideals without action will just lead to cynicism, apathy, and addressing these issues together will inevitably lead to cognitive and political change individually and society-wide. Action, if it is to scale up through society, needs to be effective and sustainable.

Celebrating entrepreneurialism enables effective activism. Rather than criticising or disdaining those who create wealth, jobs in new creative businesses, creating new and successful business models will be the best way (for individuals in our industries) of gaining credibility and power to effect change. Traditional disdain for business by the alternative and creative communities just leads to their/our arguments being sidelined, and good critical thinkers simply preaching to the converted.  By the same argument, seeing Web 2.0 as just a great new way to make money, or merely to produce entertainment, without looking at the wider social situation in which this is being done, will be polarising to society and a selling short of the potential of this techno-social revolution.

I like this idea. Not happy with the way companies are managed? The best response is not necessarily talking about it, but to create a company and manage it in a way you do like. Create an alternative rather than helping the approach you don’t like persist through lack of options.

I’m interested. Anyone else surprised by asshole leaders? Got some pre-presentation or presentation tips? Any other thoughts?…