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Why Do We Idolize Jerks?

The new book "Ascent of the A-Word" traces our love affair with “iconic assholes” like Steve Jobs, Donald Trump, Mark Zuckerberg and others.

From the book Ascent of the A-Word by Geoffrey Nunberg. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2012.

This is an age of assholism simply because we find the phenomenon and its practitioners so interesting — or provocative, or compelling, or compellingly repulsive, or sometimes all of those at once. I’m not thinking so much of assholes of opportunity like Charlie Sheen and Mel Gibson, or of incidental assholes like James Cameron or Brett Favre, whose assholism only adds a colorful sidebar to an independently impressive career. There’s little about those people that’s particular to the age, save that in earlier periods the public probably would have been spared the details of the personal tics and twitches that qualify them for the asshole label. What’s unique to our time is the fixation with certain iconic assholes, who exemplify each in his way the problematic allure of the species.

Steve Jobs, for example, was a modern personification of the asshole as achiever, someone whose assholism seems to be inextricable from his success as a leader. The traditional paragons of the type are the storied tough guys from military, business, and public life whose leadership styles are packaged in memoirs and advice books like What It Takes to Be #1: Lombardi on Leadership, Rudy Giuliani’s Leadership, 29 Leadership Secrets from Jack Welch, and above all a four-foot shelf of inspirational works on George S. Patton, the first general to have been explicitly designated an asshole by both his men and his superiors. From Patton on Leadership: Strategic Lessons for Corporate Warfare, we learn:

If he slapped a soldier, well, it was certainly wrong, but he thought it necessary for the morale of his troops. . . . It was often said that his troops would accomplish the impossible, then go out and do it all over again. “Patton’s men” may not have always truly appreciated the man’s leadership style at the time. Human nature is such that the discipline and the obedience required by a great leader are so often cause for griping and displeasure. But in retrospect, to have served under Patton was a red badge of courage to be worn forever.

The passage is calculated to reassure even the most abusive manager that he’s on the right track; it’s for the good of the team, after all, and whatever his subordinates may say about him, they’ll be grateful later on.

For some, Jobs fills an analogous role in the digital age. Shortly after his death and the publication of Walter Isaacson’s bestselling biography, Tom McNichol wrote in the Atlantic:

CEOs, middle managers and wannabe masters of the universe are currently devouring the Steve Jobs biography and thinking to themselves: “See! Steve Jobs was an asshole and he was one of the most successful businessmen on the planet. Maybe if I become an even bigger asshole I’ll be successful like Steve.”

And indeed, some observers depicted Jobs’ assholism as a deliberate management style. As Alan Deutschman put it in Newsweek, Jobs was a “master of psychological manipulation”:

He found that by delivering brutal putdowns of his co-workers he could test the strength of their conviction in their own ideas. . . . He found that many of the most brilliant engineers and creative types actually responded well to cruel criticism, since it reinforced their own secret belief that they weren’t living up to their vaunted potential.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment of Jobs’ skills as a manager; Isaacson says that he was terrible at it, and that success came despite his being a colossal asshole, not because of it. But it isn’t as if there are no advantages to being an asshole, in business or elsewhere. Life rarely makes moral choices that easy for us. When he was preparing The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t, Robert Sutton reports he was repeatedly challenged by Silicon Valley leaders who asked him, “What about Steve Jobs?” to the point where he reluctantly added a chapter called “The Virtues of Assholes.” He concedes that judicious displays of irrational anger have their uses—fear of humiliation can be a motivator for employees if it’s balanced with the hope of praise, and a well-timed tantrum can get you a boarding pass at the last minute from uncooperative airport staff. And there are fields where behaving like an asshole offers a clear career advantage, such as professional wrestling and the law. Certain law firms encourage a hardball style that can cross over into what Sandra Day O’Connor has called legal Ramboism. As a former federal judge who became a partner at a notoriously aggressive Wall Street law firm said, “At Skadden Arps . . . we pride ourselves on being assholes. It’s part of the firm’s culture.”