by Achim Nowak

How to Not Become an A**hole On Your Climb to the TOP

October 2, 2023

I urge Oliver, a client, to ask a family member for feedback on his communication style. My request elicits a chuckle from Oliver:

I was chatting with my mother a few years ago, Oliver recalls with a disarming grin, and she looked me in the eyes and said, “Somewhere between Ohio State and Yale, you became an asshole.”

I appreciate Oliver’s candor. And I have an instant sense that he, suave demeanor and all, knows exactly what mom meant.

2 weeks ago, I completed a series of 360 feedback interviews for a fellow named Manuel. More than one feedback provider volunteered a comment such as Well, half the people think Manuel is tough and demanding. The other half just think he’s an asshole.

I like both Oliver and Manuel. They hold impressive C- Suite roles and are considered high-potential stars. They have also tossed a few bodies by the wayside on their climb to the top.

When ambition ends, happiness begins.”

Thomas Merton

In his classic book “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There,” Marshall Goldsmith outlines the 20 behaviors that prevent highly gifted leaders from reaching their full potential. He offers former General Electric CEO Jack Welch as an example. Jack was revered by some, considered an asshole by many more.

Jack Welch has a PH.D. in chemical engineering, Goldsmith writes, but I doubt if any problems he encountered in his last 30 years at General Electric were related to his skill at chemical titration or formulating plastics. When he was vying for the CEO job, the issues holding him back were strictly behavioral – his brashness, his blunt language, his unwillingness to suffer fools.

Some might say his assholism.

The #1 behavior that gets a fast-rising leader into trouble, according to Goldsmith? Wanting to win TOO MUCH.

There is, of course, a delicate balance between just right and too much. You have likely been promoted because you are a go-getter. Your company sneers at old-timers who aren’t bold enough. You have an I want to win mindset. This mindset set you apart from the pack. And, wait a minute – now that is TOO MUCH?

Let us dissect this mindset and look at the ways in which it can quickly take you to the dark side. 4 specific thought patterns immediately come to mind.

Think of them as your asshole derailers.

Derailer #1: I know better than they do.

You were top of your class in High School. Made the Dean's List in college. They all told you how smart you were. And whether they spelled it out or not, it was strongly implied: You were smarter than others.

I think of a fellow named Philip. At the age of 35, Philip became a VP in a large global enterprise. By the time I met Philip he was in his early 50s and still a VP in the same enterprise. Philip had been moved from business unit to business unit and never reached the very top of the enterprise. Team members didn't last with him very long and asked to be transferred elsewhere. In conversation with me it became clear that Philip fashioned himself a business icon like, yes, Jack Welsh or Steve Jobs. I don't think they want you to be Steve Jobs here, I said to Philip. They just want you to be a good leader.

Warning: Beware of exceptional-itis. You ARE very smart. So are others. Bring a bit of humility, please.

Derailer # 2: I have to fix it right away.

They put you in your role because they love your passion for process improvement. They told you when they hired you that they want you to be a change agent. You may have heard RIGHT AWAY. NOW. That's likely not what they actually said. The person who had the job before you tried and failed. Don’t make the mistake of believing everything they tell you in the job interview. Don't delude yourself into thinking you can tackle the big stuff OVERNIGHT.

Your instinct to make changes quickly is commendable. I chat all the time, however, with CEOs who have to pull an over-eager member of the team back from the ambition brink. Because being the bull in a china shop will not get you there.

Warning: Understand culture. Your blazing ambitions will not change entrenched culture overnight. Don't even think of going it alone.

Derailer # 3: I can meet very aggressive targets.

It's true. When you exceed your targets your superiors rarely just go, Hey, great job. No, it usually means you're given even more aggressive targets. Larger teams to manage. Bigger fish to fry. If you had any sense, you would occasionally push back. Say no. Draw the line. But you get seduced by the faith they have in you. Why would you question this faith? 

Here's what happens instead: The pressure of unattainable commitments gets passed down to those who work for you. You have to drive your people hard, very hard, to meet these targets. And harder and harder. Your frustration will mount the less attainable your targets are. You will become the hard-driving boss from hell.

Warning: Don't make life miserable for those who work for you. There is no success with a pummeled and burned-out team. 

Derailer #4: I will make sure they know I have greater ambitions.

You believe this to be true: This role I’m in now is a mere pit stop to greater glory. I’m a visionary leader. I will tolerate some of this nonsense I have to do now so I can get to where I really want to be. Because where I really want to be is NOT here.

Huhhmm. This mindset will likely never get you to where you ultimately want to be. And while you do your best to "play nice" with your superiors who will determine your future career, these sentiments of yours, no matter how well camouflaged, will be heard, felt and noticed by those who report to you. They will sense just how much you view your current role as a mere stepping stone to bigger things. And how dispensable they ultimately are to you. The moment they know this, they will never, ever go the extra mile for you. We don't go the extra mile for the leader who doesn't care about us.

The only successes that are real, of course, are the current ones. And they don't happen without the hard work of others.

Warning: It's wonderful to have ambition. It's rarely cool to wear your ambition on your sleeves.

Oliver didn't set out to become an asshole. Most of us don't. The pressures of sustaining exceptional performance, however, can be relentless. The larger the playground in which we play, the lonelier it can feel to be at the helm. The more of our character defects will reveal themselves. 

Check your asshole meter. You see it in others, don't you? Make sure you see it in yourself.

Because you will be rewarded for being an asshole. Until you’re not.

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