Being a Jerk as a Leader: When You Need It

Sometimes being a jerk is needed. In this article, “Being a Jerk as a Leader: When You Need It,” let’s talk about why it’s more than okay to be a jerk as a leader.

In an article written by Patrick Lencioni, author of the book “The Five Dysfunctions as a Team”, he shares an experience with a college baseball team. He discovered that there is a difference between a “Jerk” with a capital “J” and a jerk with a small letter “j”. Big “J” jerks are harsh for no clear reason to help the team. They like being mean for their own selfish reasons. In fact, they like bullying people, just for the thrills.

Contrast with the little letter “j” jerks as leaders. Lencioni explains in the article that people who are willing to be “jerks” for the good of the team and for their teammates is a positive thing. In fact, he claims that failing to appreciate them for what they do for the organization can be painful. His argument is that the real jerks on the team are the ones who say nothing and take a passive position on important issues.

Read Lencioni’s excellent article here:

Frankly, he couldn’t say it any better. Communicating the difficult, but important messages to your team is way more important than to ignore them or deny the opportunities to share them. As a leader, you have to give it straight to your team. They are depending on you to lead them, and to lead them in easy and difficult situations. If you tell them the truth, you may not be liked, but you will be respected. If you maintain the same approach, your team will respect you enough to follow you anywhere.

Additionally, allow the “jerks” to be honest in your organization. You don’t want a whole group of people who avoid talking about the difficult situations as the standard.  Be the “jerk” asking the tough questions and wants to fix the substandard performance issues – as long as that person is committed to contributing to finding and implementing the solution.

When do you need to be a jerk as a leader?

Be a jerk when your team isn’t getting the work done.

If your team isn’t doing what it needs to succeed, it’s up to you need to share the tough news. Don’t dodge the opportunity and don’t “sugar-coat” the message that you need to say. Say it honestly, candidly and accurately. Get your team aligned again, even if you’re not going to be popular. If you have the best team members, they’re not going to care about your popularity. What they’re going to care about is when things get so bad that they have to dig out of a bigger mess. Get to the point and send the message that you’re not accepting the best work.

You need to be a jerk when your team is complacent.

Sometimes our teams get into a pattern and a rhythm that is acceptable, but not at the best level. In those cases, we need to know when we need to push harder and expect greater results. These situations can get some negative reactions. Some team members show irritation at change. They work to get comfortable. When they get in a comfortable position, the last thing they want is a leader who rips out that comfortable position out from the team. Nevertheless, it’s what the best teams need – to be working hard and avoiding complacency. When you aren’t getting better, you’re only allowing yourself to fail. And maintaining a position is another way of telling yourself and your team that you’re okay with failing.

Be a jerk when your team is driven by a bad attitude.

Even when we’re succeeding as a team, we can have a bad attitude creep into the organization. You have to kill it. As the saying goes, “kill it with fire.” Don’t try to be a peacemaker. Be direct. Also, be tough. Be relentless. That attitude can destroy an organization quickly and it’s your job to be ruthless to get rid of it. You don’t have to condemn people, but you need to condemn what causes people to be selfish, difficult, and non-productive.

Be a jerk when you need it. It’s okay.

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