Do You Need to Be a Jerk to Succeed as a Leader?

I read an article last weekend on Salon’s (@Salon) website entitled “Trump, Jobs, Zuckerberg: We Idolize Jerks.” It’s an excerpt from the book, Ascent of the A-Word by Geoffrey Nunberg (‏@GeoffNunberg). In it, the author proclaims that this is “an age of assholism” because some of the world’s most nastiest leaders have somehow become the most successful.  

Probably the most famous example is Steve Jobs. Walter Isaacson, author of the bestselling biography, describes him as a person who succeeded in spite of being a “colossal asshole.” I certainly admire what Jobs built at Apple, but I never got the point of the crying, temper tantrums, manipulations, and other petty behavior Isaacson describes.

A lot of people struggle with this question: Do I need to be a jerk to succeed as a leader?

If you look at examples like Steve Jobs or Donald Trump, the answer seems to be yes. But most people I work with want to lead in a more positive, optimistic manner. And that biography of Jobs made me wonder if he could have been even more successful with a different leadership style.

Let’s face it, there are times when you need to invoke your nasty side, because a positive approach won't get results. Sometimes you need to hold an underperforming worker accountable. Or you need to bring a sense of urgency to a team that’s not delivering. Or you’re cleaning up a situation after a royal screw-up. In these moments, a glimpse of your nasty side can increase motivation, improve performance, and communicate the severity of the situation. Jerks get people’s attention.

But there’s a difference between selectively being a jerk when the situation demands it, and making that your permanent leadership style.

I’m not sure there’s an easy answer to this question. What do you think? Do you believe you need to be a jerk to succeed as a leader?