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Sometimes You Have To Be a Jerk. (No, You’re Just A Jerk!)

July 31, 2013

The young 2nd Lieutenant looked at the ROTC cadet across the table. While only a few years older, he was the commanding officer and she was just a cadet, not exactly a real soldier. They were finishing up a summer deployment in Bulgaria.

When you are in charge, sometimes you just have to be a jerk.

Several possible responses came to mind. She had the good sense not to speak any of them. But, foremost among them were

None of those times occurred on this trip.

or, more pointedly

No, you’re just a jerk.

The group of nine ROTC cadets decided they hated the 2LT. And he had done nothing to change their feelings about him. Sadly he probably honestly thought that he was simply being a “tough” leader.

I avoided management for the first half of my career. Early in my career I met My Boss From Hell. He along with subsequent bad bosses convinced me that if management meant that “Sometimes you have to be a jerk,” I wanted no part of it.

While working for a startup called Agile Studios, I found myself as the “grown up” among a group of recent college graduates. The president at 24 or 25 was about 15 years younger than I was. I was asked to become the Executive Vice President and just like that I was management.

I kept watching for the time where I was going to have to be a jerk. I really dreaded it. Many years later, I’m still waiting for that time to show up. I’ve had to fire people, (You’re fired, Fireworks in 3…2..1, He Also Deserved To Be Fired.) I’ve had to reprimand people (He Deserved To Be Fired.) I had to deal with upset customers (Your Bill is HOW much?) In each case, I tried to approach it with a dignity for the person I was dealing with. When employees screwed up, I had to decide if their problem required firing them. If it did, I made sure that they understood the reasons, and that I didn’t confuse poor performance with a poor individual.

I realized eventually, that no, you don’t sometimes have to be a jerk. There are just some people who are jerks. Looking back on the bad managers I’ve had over the years, I now understand that their bad attitude was not a result of the situation. Instead it was a result of a personal decision that they made to be a jerk.

Most often, I think it was to cover their own feelings of failure. I know when I’ve hired someone that doesn’t work out, I feel like much of the fault is mine. Did I train them well enough? Did I give them too much leeway? Did I not give them enough? Those type of introspective questions scare many people. So, they decide to take it out on their employees by having a terrible attitude.

You don’t have to be a jerk, and it’s actually a lot easier to be a manager if you aren’t. If you end up working for someone who feels, or worse, tells you that they have to be a jerk at times to be a good manager, run don’t walk for the exit.

Life’s too short to work for a jerk.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, blogger and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and 13 children.

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