The Asshole as Leader

Emotional Intelligence has become a big leadership topic over the past ten years. In the academic literature there is a great debate over whether Emotional Intelligence (EI) predicts success as a leader any better than IQ does.

What is EI? EI is the awareness, understanding and management of emotions, both of your self and of others.  People with high EI demonstrate empathy and concern for others.  Perhaps they are “nicer” to work with.   While EI has managed to enter mainstream management, the research on EI is mixed.  One researcher suggests that EI does not predict leadership performance better than IQ. 

So why, if EI is so important to effective management/leadership, are there so many assholes in leadership roles? Think about Steve Jobs, Larry Ellison, oh hell, a list too long to be mentioned.

Perhaps these assholes succeed as leaders in spite of a low EI.  That is, followers ignore the low EI because of some other factor, such as charisma.  Although I have no research evidence, I suspect that there is a different cause of the successful asshole leader.

It depends on the followers.  If followers think EI is important, then it becomes essential that the leader demonstrate EI.  If followers don’t value EI, but value something else, such as vision, then you might get a visionary asshole. 

And that is, perhaps why we have so many leaders who are assholes. Do I want to work for an asshole?  Not really.   Just read Bob Sutton’s book “The No Asshole Rule”, to find out how assholes can be toxic in an organization.  But don’t assume that assholes are ineffective leaders.  Some are, some aren’t. And don’t assume that nice, empathetic leaders are always effective.  

So when does emotional intelligence, niceness and empathy matter?  In my opinion, they matter when the followers think they matter.


2 replies »

  1. I would suggest that most followers want to be treated “nicely”. That said, “nicely” does not necessarily directly facilitate productivity, so Leaders cannot always afford to be “nice”. As always, balance is required in all things. Guess that’s what makes some people good leaders.

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