Upwardly Mobile Assholes

I got a job out of college at a think tank that had as its deputy director a twenty-something wunderkind.  I had met many intelligent people before, but he was in a class of his own.  The Ivy League-educated dynamo could quote at length Shakespeare and Thucydides, and uncannily rattle off relevant statistics to drive home a point.  He was ludicrously precocious.  He was also an asshole.  His extraordinary intellect was not unaffected but rather the opposite, a cudgel that he’d use to bludgeon those mere mortals in his company.  He made sure you didn’t forget that he was brighter than you—ever. 

A few years ago, this brainy bully won a seat in Congress, proving that smarts can trump charm, even in electoral politics where such blatant smugness would seemingly alienate voters.  His disagreeable character even came through on television.  Yet none of this apparently mattered.  Although he lost his seat in a swing district when the political winds shifted, his name is often floated as a future candidate for high office.

I eventually left the think tank and joined a foreign embassy in Washington, DC as a local hire.  The embassy was teeming with the best and brightest from my employer’s diplomatic corps, an elite group so similar in background and personality that it was as if they emerged fully formed from a giant stamping machine.  But even in this rarefied company of go-getters, one of my colleagues stood out for his shameless ambition.  Like my manager at the think tank, he was a bonafide, unmitigated asshole.  If you served no purpose to further his career you served no purpose at all.  He would not even deign to acknowledge your existence.  But to those he perceived as useful, such as the ambassador—also an asshole of regal proportion—he was charm personified.   

My colleague was widely reviled at the embassy.  The pool of drivers loathed him, as did the canteen’s staff and many others who failed to register on his career-sensitive radar and thus were treated as inconsequential nothings.  Yet his condescension and contemptuousness did not hinder him professionally, as this most undiplomatic diplomat was eventually awarded one of his country’s highest civilian honors and, at 40 years of age, appointed an ambassador.

Assholery (verb, present tense; the activity in which one engages to be acknowledged to be an Asshole) clearly isn’t a career killer.  Take Steve Jobs.  The former head of Apple may have been a business visionary, but he was also a nasty piece of work.  According to Job’s biographer Walter Isaacson, Jobs was rude, abrasive, and spiteful.  He publicly humiliated his employees and threw childish tantrums.  Jobs also denied paternity to daughter, for years relegating her and her mother to welfare, and parked his Mercedes in handicapped spots.  These aren’t admirable qualities to most, but Tom McNichol of Atlantic points out that they may be seen as such by those trying to emulate Jobs’ success.  Reading Isaacson’s book on Jobs could make “bosses who are already assholes into even bigger assholes, raising the temperature of the worst actors so that they become that most combustible of workplace figures, the flaming asshole.”

Could the above examples merely indicate that outstanding talent and intelligence can overcome a personality gone horribly wrong?  Perhaps.  Robert Sutton has a slightly different take, however.  Sutton is the author of The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving one that Isn’t, which argues that mean managers undermine workplace morale critical to productivity.  Yet he concedes that on occasion venal bosses can be good motivators, a point he makes in a chapter of his book entitled, “The Virtues of Assholes.”  But mostly the opposite is true, a point seconded by Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania.  

In Give and Take, Grant classifies people into two general groups, givers and takers.  The former are defined by their selflessness and magnanimity, while the latter “tilt reciprocity in their own favor, putting their own interests ahead of others' needs.”  Citing numerous studies, Grant claims that givers are surprisingly successful—he includes two of America’s best presidents, George Washington and Abe Lincoln, as embodiments of the personality type—and, moreover, that their generosity ripples outward, enhancing the fortunes of those touched by it.  By contrast, takers oftentimes underperform and fail.  There is karma in life, Grant says; nice guys do finish first.

Grant’s well-documented case for decoupling in the popular imagination upward mobility with assholery may well be strong, but I’m not convinced.  It doesn’t align with my own experience.  Call my cynical but I’ll be vindicated if my former think tank colleague again wins high political office.

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