Lessons about Leadership from “Dicks”

Steve Jobs was known for being a jerk. He would fire people without prior notice, regularly scream in front of his employees, and strike fear in the people around him. Michael Bay is described by many as a scary, deplorable director. Trump is a racist, sexist, bigot, you name it. Yet, all these of these individuals are undeniably successful in our society. Whether it is CEOs, movie directors or today’s president, it seems that the common trope we have of successful leaders today is assertive douchebags who can somehow rule the world.

I’ve recently stumbled upon an amazing documentary, made by Max Joseph, an up-and-coming director who was trying to answer this specific question: Do you need to be a dick to become a successful leader? I highly encourage you to watch this 30-minute documentary if you have time, it is extremely well made.

In essence, Max went around the country to interview many successful movie directors, authors and experts on the subject of leadership, in order to build out his theory and become a better leader himself.

However, one problem that I have with this documentary is that it gives the answer mostly from the perspectives of movie directors, and does not go into leadership in other industries. As a student entrepreneur, I wanted to share my opinion on this contentious topic.

Firstly, I think we can all agree that nobody likes to be treated like crap. It is disrespectful and dehumanizes us. When I act as a leader, I don’t want to be a jerk to others because I don't want others to be jerks with me. This is why the approach I’ve taken at leadership has always been to come from a place of understanding. Leadership, for me, has always been about lifting others up more than anything. It wasn’t about myself. At the surface, it makes total sense.

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My established idea of leadership.

However, recently, as I’ve started my own nonprofit and faced the challenge of dealing with a larger team, I’ve also felt that being a nice person was getting in my way. I tried to be understanding with my team, composed of students, who were all busy people with their own priorities, but I didn’t feel like being understanding gave any benefits to the productivity of the company. Rather, it felt like it was getting in the way. I had so many ideas, so much potential, but it got wasted on people that weren’t reliable and that I tried to forgive too many times.

On the other hand, I’ve had a much more positive experience at a summer camp where I undertook a leadership position within a team of motivated peers. This time, I was serious and assertive, which helped the team stay on track and ultimately win the best project at the summer camp. However, when I asked my team for feedback on my leadership, I was often criticized for being too serious, for not seeing the fun in things. This is the reason why I tried to work on my leadership by being more understanding within my own nonprofit organization. But thinking back, was that a real valid criticism? If I hadn’t been so serious, if I had been the Steven that was joking around and making everyone feel relaxed, would I have been as good of a leader?

In the documentary, Max talks about his own struggle with his personality. Similarly to me, he also felt that trying to be the ‘nice guy’ seemed to get in his way of him becoming a better director. He realized that when he was serious around the cast, people became more receptive to his orders. In the end, Max concludes that being a dick is just one approach of many to be a great leader. He saw how you can be a nice guy while also being a great leader.

The reason why Max felt that his nice personality limited him was that he was confusing the difference between being a “giver” and being “agreeable”. Being a giver is about motives and intentions (helping others succeed or taking them down) while being agreeable is about pleasing others, having harmony and getting along. Max was getting into the danger of being an agreeable-giver, which ultimately made one a pushover, someone that people expected to listen to them and implement their ideas. What Max should rather strive for is being a disagreeable-giver, someone who is able to stand up to themselves while maintaining altruistic motives.

Max continues to explain that the most important thing in a leader was having a vision and conviction.

Elon Musk, for example, may not be one of the greatest speakers in the country, but he has conviction, a vision so powerful that nobody else in the world dare to dream. He doesn't need to use rhetoric through speech to convince people. He has other tricks in his pocket. His relentlessness to give up is why so many people such as myself admire him. For example, SpaceX was so close to being bankrupt, but Musk kept pushing forward in the face of adversity.

“I messed up the first three launches. The first three launches failed. And fortunately the fourth launch, which was, that was the last money that we had for Falcon 1. That fourth launch worked. Or it would have been — that would have been it for SpaceX. But fate liked us that day. So, the fourth launch worked,” says Musk.

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SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, a marvellous piece of technology that Elon Musk led the development of.

So going back to my question, I don’t think I would have been such a great leader if I hadn’t acted the way I was at that summer camp. I had the conviction that our project was going to succeed and change the world. The grit to pursue something that no one else in the world believed more than myself. And prioritizing that over anything else. The way I acted around people was a consequence of that vision and conviction.

In my nonprofit organization, I let it flip around. The way I acted around people became more important than my vision and conviction. Ultimately, it was a nuisance for both myself and the team that I let down, since we weren’t able to accomplish much in the first few months. Moving forward, I will be focusing on my vision and ensuring that my vision is my number one priority consistently.

However, I would also like to clarify that I still believe that the way one acts around people is still extremely important. Without a team, I don’t believe a person can get very far in life. Whether that is a 2-man team or a gigantic corporation, teamwork is still essential to success. What I am arguing is that in leadership, passion and conviction are what differentiate good leaders from great leaders. Great leaders are visionaries that can change the world because they are so convicted in themselves that they won’t anything get in their way. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that they are great people.

In fact, Hitler was also an excellent leader. He was charismatic, he built a massive following, and he had a powerful vision to make Germany great again after the embarrassing defeat in the first World War. The only problem was that his vision was a horrible one, so terrific that it would devastate the lives of millions of people.

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A great leader who got elected as American president.

In conclusion, you don’t need to be a bad person to become a great leader. But you will have to be disagreeable, else people will take advantage of you as a “people-pleaser”. Learn to stand your ground and to say when enough is enough. However, be prepared to come off as a bad person if you do decide to strive to become a great leader.

To give my final 2 cents worth, I believe that being leadership is just one aspect of life. Not everyone is made to be a leader or even wants to be a leader. I think what is more important to learn from great leadership is the relentless dedication of these individuals. I encourage you to find that passion, that fire inside of you that keeps you going every day. I find leadership interesting because it is a vague term that has so many interpretations, meanings and lessons.

What do you think makes up a great leader? Do you agree with the things I have said?

Thanks for reading today’s article,

Steven Gong