Paul L. Caron

Thursday, March 21, 2019

WSJ: When Should 'Gladiatorial Leadership' Be Tolerated (Or Even Encouraged)?

WalkerWall Street Journal op-ed:  Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Boss?, by Sam Walker (author, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams (2018)):

Former aides claim the Minnesota senator [Amy Klobuchar] is a difficult boss. But are we too tough on tough leaders?

In a five-year period from 2014 to 2018, according to, Sen. Klobuchar’s allegedly browbeaten staff helped her co-sponsor 1,967 bills—more than any other senator except Connecticut’s Richard Blumenthal. Another study, conducted in 2016, ranked her No. 1 in the Senate in lending her name to bills that were enacted into law. Perhaps her former staffers wouldn’t have become so disgruntled if they’d gotten more sleep.

Another factor that hasn’t been thoroughly explored is something Sen. Klobuchar flicked at on CNN. Before winning her first election in 1998, she spent 14 years in the private sector managing teams at law firms. If she learned about leadership in a rough-and-tumble corporate performance culture, it’s probably safe to assume that she runs her Senate shop a bit differently than a career politician.

Most young Senate staffers don’t arrive on Capitol Hill with vast experience inside hard-driving businesses. In that context, I’m not sure a boss who once ripped her staff for giving her a salad to eat on a plane without a fork, as the New York Times reported, or remarked one day at the Capitol that she’d happily trade three of them for a bottle of water, would seem unusual enough to single out. ...

Whether or not Sen. Klobuchar deserves this, one thing is certain: Too many bosses treat employees like dirt, and it’s time we started thinning the herd. This, of course, is easier said than done.

Before deciding where the future line should be drawn, it’s worth exploring a nagging question. Are difficult bosses more likely to succeed, or inevitably doomed to fail?

There’s no question that every so often a demanding, even belittling boss will possess enough raw leadership talent to achieve outsize results. Apple’s Steve Jobs, who famously lit into employees, reducing some to tears, generated profits hand over fist. It’s hard to argue that these unicorns should be discarded.

No AssholeAt the same time, it’s often difficult to distinguish between a “tough” boss and an outright abusive one. The best yardstick, according to Stanford University professor Robert Sutton, author of The No-Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, is a leader’s emotional impact on others. On that front, he says, research overwhelmingly suggests that bullied workers suffer greatly.

They’re more likely to quit and call in sick, and to battle depression and anxiety. They’re less liable to challenge the boss, point out errors, tell the truth, take risks or go the extra mile. “There might be some exceptions,” Dr. Sutton says, “but you have to look at the weight of the evidence.” 

The final question is whether there’s any version of gladiatorial leadership that’s worth tolerating.

Nearly all managers, at some point, “are going to have episodes that others perceive as bad behavior,” Dr. Sutton says. Yelling at people all the time isn’t good, but “there are times when a strategic temper tantrum works.” If constructive conflict is the hallmark of any great team, then occasionally dressing someone down, especially if they’re not accustomed to it, can have a strong motivating effect.

The problem with prosecuting individual cases of bad behavior is that it may force an overcorrection. If we criminalize toughness, Dr. Sutton says, people might start to view the most benign criticism as a personal attack.

There’s some evidence that we’re already headed down that road. Many companies are softening their approach to employees; offering perks, conducting frequent satisfaction surveys and focusing on “engagement.” Some firms have tried to expunge the unbending “pay-your-dues” cultures of the past. As I wrote in November, some prominent companies have avoided chief executives with big personalities and sharp elbows in favor of unassuming, low-key managers in the mold of Mr. Rogers.

In my view, personality is overrated. Human beings are born with different temperaments: some burn hot, others run cool. But the instincts that make people extraordinary leaders are randomly distributed. ...

The important question for voters to ponder is whether Sen. Klobuchar’s management style is unacceptable, or whether it generally falls inside the range of what’s tolerable for most people. If the former is true, she shouldn’t be elected. If it’s the latter, however, there’s a strong argument for letting her be.

A time then when good leaders are hard to find is a terrible moment to toss out every candidate on the aggressive side of the spectrum.

See also The Success Of A Disruptive Leader Depends On Her Successor

Other Captain Class leadership columns:

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"Human beings are born with different temperaments: some burn hot, others run cool. But the instincts that make people extraordinary leaders are randomly distributed."
The same can be said about the temperament of the employees and their sensitivity or over-sensitivity. It's just that there are more of them, so it is statistically more likely a boss will have some over-sensitive snowflakes working for them.

Posted by: ruralcounsel | Mar 25, 2019 4:44:42 AM

While I might not be Senator’s Klobuchar’s biggest fan, the public scrutiny and reporting of her “hardness” seems to be disproportionate to what we see with demanding men bosses. Is this such a big story, and the reaction to it, all because she’s a woman…because it’s somewhat unusual for women to be demanding and hard bosses? But then again, maybe it just comes with the territory of running for President. Even so, in all fairness, the reaction to her hardness shouldn’t be any different to the reaction accorded to a demanding male boss who isn’t running for President. Maybe it all boils down to statistics: 1 demanding woman boss divided by the number of women in powerful positions equals a high percentage, so it gets a lot of press. One demanding male boss divided by the number of men in powerful positions is a miniscule percentage, not even newsworthy, we never hear about it. It is simply accepted as just another day at the office. Just Sayin’.

Posted by: Just Sayin' | Mar 21, 2019 4:47:49 PM