I know…so many people don’t like the word asshole. But really, there isn’t a better word to comprehensively represent the characteristics we are about to discuss. I’m not alone in drawing this conclusion either. Dr. Cameron Sepah is a psychiatry professor and graduate of UCLA and Harvard. He has laid out the “Anatomy of an Asshole” because this word, while not a clinical word, embodies a shared understanding of a clearly categorized behavior pattern. (Well said Doctor! Couldn’t have said it better myself…literately…which is why I kept your words!)
While there are an array of assholes in the world, I’d like to focus on one particular category: the good person turned asshole leader. I’m focusing on this particular category, as I feel it is both the most prevalent and fixable form of asshole.
The Good Person turned Asshole Leader
People and companies love to throw leadership skills around like it isn’t a tangible skill. This is largely why companies tend to promote their best sales people into sales managers or why outgoing people are considered more well-liked and, therefore, a leader.
To be clear, technical skills and savvy do not translate into leading or managing people.
Being social also does not translate into leading or managing.
Even being generally a good person does not translate into being a good leader.
Yet the large majority of companies promote asshole leaders. I say this because in reviewing my network of friends, who work in a number of industries and job roles, they are currently working for assholes. And I’m not talking 60% majority…I’m talking the overwhelming majority.
This extends beyond my close network too. A few years ago, I met a guy who used to be a United pilot, and he concluded that ALL airline companies were run by assholes, quit his job, and opened a small donut shop. He couldn’t be happier living his asshole-free life.
But what causes a good person to become an asshole leader?
Misguided Authoritative Persona
I have watched really great people become really bad leaders. You probably have witnessed this same phenomenon. This happens typically from someone being promoted into a leadership role, without any real leadership skills. Armed with a lack of confidence, knowledge, experience, or expertise, the result often manifests in people adopting a persona of a leader; what they think a leader looks like. Whether the main driver is fear or confidence or a social idea of how a leader behaves, so many people shift their innate self and create their authoritative persona.
The signs of this shift are clear. They do not treat the people they manage with the same ethical code as they do their friends, family, or even strangers. Empathy and understanding suddenly reduce. They no longer speak in a casual manner. They separate themselves from certain social gatherings and often office friendships. They develop a personal sense of importance and superiority. And the final nail, they misinterpret being a leader for the power to control other’s professional lives.
While I’m not a psychologist, I would bet this persona is derived from 1. mimicking other bad leaders since they are the many and 2. lack of actual preparedness for the job role outside of practitioner or subject matter expertise that doesn’t translate to how to manage or lead a team.
Regardless of the reason, I want to be VERY CLEAR: Your personality should not change with your job title.
Most people are surprised that bad leaders are often driven by fear. This is highly prevalent in the Good-Person turns Bad-Leader scenario. They don’t advocate for their people because they are afraid of being wrong. They don’t speak up with opposing thoughts to their leaders because they fear repercussions. They attempt to manage everyone in the exact same way because they fear accusations of being unfair or having favorites. They assume low-risk decision making as to avoid conflict or litigation. They even fear being too social because they fear it may undermine their authority when needed. All of this internal fear dialog presents externally as aggression, arrogance, apathy, etc…but it comes from the fear of failing in a role you are not equipped to handle.
Yet all of these fears lead to a self-defeating path…
If you fear nurturing your individual team members around their unique qualities, then you also forfeit your opportunity to coach and mentor.
If you fear getting to know your team group dynamics or engage socially, you forfeit your ability to understand your team or possess any realm of understanding or fairness in decision making.
If you fear your own leadership retaliating against your contributions, then you are not functioning as a leader but rather a henchman for someone else’s ideas, thoughts, and strategies.
If you, as a leader, are operating in fear, you are not a leader.
The best leaders I have met, while intelligent and thoughtful, are also audacious. They accept failure as a learning experience, tolerate high risk for high reward, work to nurture others, and under no circumstance, quiver in fear at the idea of retaliation. I would bet they actually enjoy a good debate and challenge.
But they are not bullies either…
They debate in order to seek understanding. They engage with their people to learn about individual motivation, ideas, growth potential, etc. They embrace the notions that people are sensitive, feeling, thinking beings who are both failable and brilliant.
Most importantly, they seek to gain a clear understanding of their people in order to bring out the best version of those people. They chose to bring their people up, which is in stark contrast to the fear-based leaders trying to keep themselves from falling. They are genuinely the same person with colleagues as they are with friends.