The Steve Jobs Effect: Do “Jerk” Bosses Always Rise to the Top?

A disturbing news trend I’ve been seeing during the last several months since the untimely death of Steve Jobs is the rise of the “jerk” boss – an aggressive, in-your-face, even insulting management style being necessary to not only get the “best” out of people, but also to rise to the highest career levels.

This Washington Post article makes the point well, elucidating why it is that people in power choose the path of the jerk:

Most of the would-be masters of the universe who take Patton or Jobs as their personal models aren’t choosing [being a jerk] as a career expedient, they’re looking to justify their predilection for it. …

And there’s the problem. There are certainly no more of these abusers populating the corner suites than there were in ages past—compared to the likes of Jay Gould and Henry Clay Frick, even Chainsaw Al is a pussycat. But the type has become a singular obsession for us. Every age seizes on one social miscreant to personify its deepest social anxieties, as the cad did for Trollope and the phony did for Holden Caulfield. And the asshole is ours.”

Being a jerk will only take you so far

Aside from these “celebrity” jerks, however, being a jerk will only help you rise so high in your career, according to recent research featured in Dan McCarthy’s Great Leadership blog.

Specifically, the Pulse research found certain traits, which facilitate advancement to the business unit leader level, actually inhibit progression to the CEO level. Business unit leaders scored the highest in terms of displaying competitiveness and intimidating others, and the lowest in being considerate. CEOs, in contrast, scored highest in being considerate, displaying influence and taking charge, and were the least likely to be intimidating to others.

The Pulse research suggests leaders who are competitive and intimidating but lack consideration may find success and advance up to a certain point. However, the research also shows that those who progress to the top use influence rather than intimidation to direct in a positive way, and temper their competitiveness.”

Why we need more courtesy in the workplace

Not clear in the research is how many of those “considerate” CEOs were actually considerate and not competitive throughout their careers. I argue consideration for others – helping other grow, learn and develop in their own careers. That’s why I argue, as does this Harvard Business Review article, for bringing courtesy and consideration back to the workplace.

The oft-repeated truism that “people leave bosses, not companies” is very true. In today’s workplace, people are loyal to other people, not the company itself.

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What do you think builds personal loyalty more? An insulting, condescending leadership style or an encouraging, appreciative leadership style?

You can find more from Derek Irvine on his Recognize This! blog.

Derek Irvine is one of the world’s foremost experts on employee recognition and engagement, helping business leaders set a higher vision and ambition for their company culture. As the Vice President of Client Strategy and Consulting at Globoforce, Derek helps clients — including some of world’s most admired companies such as Proctor and Gamble, Intuit, KPMG, and Thomson Reuters — leverage recognition strategies and best practices to better manage company culture, elevate employee engagement, increase retention, and improve the bottom line. He's also a renowned speaker and co-author of Winning with a Culture of Recognition. Contact him at


1 Comment on “The Steve Jobs Effect: Do “Jerk” Bosses Always Rise to the Top?

  1. If you research Henry Clay Frick you might be surprised. You certainly will not call him a jerk. His mines were the safest and most modern. His houses were the best built, the best maintaned, and the patches had playgrounds and swimming pools. His company stores were competitive on the local market and bought produce from the patch gardens. On his death he gave 3/4th of his fortune away, mostly to universities and hospital. Then, of course, there is his art collection, his park in Pittburgh, and all the downtown Pittsburgh buildings he built.  
    It is unfortunate that he is the scapegoat, especially when the current writers do not research him.

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