Leaders: Don’t be an asshole

Whether you want it or not, the title of ‘leader’ comes with more than more responsibility and more headaches. It also comes with a lot power – or at the very least, perceived power.

This perception may not come from your peers or from the power that be. It comes from your direct reports. In their world, you’re kind of a big deal. You can hire, fire, write up, praise, assign work – in short, make their lives great or miserable.

And you thought you were just some middle manager. dibboss

Now that you’re drunk with power and omnipotence, listen up.

Don’t be an asshole.

Sometimes it’s tempting to throw all that power around, particularly when you’ve had a bad day or just came out of a meeting where you were made to feel like a powerless employee. Just…don’t.

The thing is, your actions resonate loudly as a leader – and nowhere loudest than with your people.

In case you can’t possibly think of how you’re being an asshole, here are some ways asshole status might be achieved and how to avoid being “that manager.” (And notice, being an asshole doesn’t always mean being belligerent.):

  • Ignore them: Employees like to be noticed.  If you’re in the office, stop by a few times.
  • Yell at them: Seriously. Yelling is what happens when you can’t use your words. And it’s unacceptable.
  • Forget what it’s like to be new at something: Leaders need patience. Everyone was new at something once, so take a breath and coach them to competence.
  • Take credit for their work: That’s downright crappy. They worked hard – they deserve the credit.
  • Give them the blame: Guess what? Their failures are your failures. Do you hold them accountable for their actions? Absolutely! But finger pointing is classic asshole behavior.
  • Wait too long to give feedback: Don’t surprise them with a bad review or corrective action. You owe it to your people to give them a chance to get better.

It really boils down to this – remember that boss you once had that was a total asshole?

Don’t be that boss.

It’s as simple as that.

The key to being a good manager is keeping the people who hate you away from those who are still undecided.

NASA is freakin’ awesome (why science geeks are leading the way for engagement)

The other night, after being woken up by a particularly loud dog turning over in her crate, the TV was turned on and I ended up watching an hour long program on NASA’s Curiosity mission to Mars.  It was awesome, and if you are not in awe of the things that human beings can do when focused on a common cause, shame on you.  I’ve been a space nerd from a very early age.  The Right Stuff is still one of my favorite movies. I really wanted to be an astrophysicist (then I hit ‘Intro to Complex Variables’.  Oof.) and I watch documentaries all the time (hence the Science Channel on at 3:00am).  I love that stuff.

As I lay there, not sleeping like I should have been, I was struck by how geeked (shout out to Steve Browne!) everyone was about the work they were doing.  And I couldn’t help think that any corporation would be lucky to have such an engaged workforce, and how any workforce would love to be that excited about going to work every day.  The NASA geeks obviously love that stuff, too.

I know NASA has come under fire in the past for their culture of cover up that resulted in deaths (Challenger, Columbia) and other leadership blunders.  I’ll address that side of the culture in the future. But for those people working on the Curiosity mission, the culture gave them exactly what they needed in order to love their jobs AND be successful.curiosity

What is it that got these NASA people so jazzed (other than the obvious fact that they are working on AWESOME SPACE STUFF)?  Here are a few things that I think contribute to the high level of NASA employee engagement that corporations can learn from:

  • People get to apply their skills and interests towards really cool work: Engagement surveys keep telling us that people want to be able to put their strengths to work on interesting projects.  You’ve probably said once or twice in your career, “I just want to make a difference.”  Well, these people are doing that – they get to use all their training and years of gazing up at the stars to help explore a distant planet.
  • Everyone is working toward the same massively difficult, but inspiring, goal: NASA is all about throwing down the gauntlet.  It started with Kennedy’s assertion that we would get to the moon by the end of the decade in the ’60s, to Apollo 13’s shifted mission to bring the astronauts home, to landing the most ambitious rover safely on Mars to conduct science experiments.  This singular focus drives all decisions and actions, keeping the teams focused on the common target.
  • Everyone’s role is well-defined: As you can imagine, a project like Curiosity has a LOT of different teams working on specific aspects of the mission.  There’s the experiment team, the landing team, the communications team, the power team, the SAM (sample analysis) team, etc.  Each person knows what their specific goals are, what the expectations are, the timeline required, and the potential impact of failure.
  • Everyone understands how their role contributes to the overall mission: I didn’t hear anyone say, “I don’t know why I do what I do – I just take orders.”  These are people who are driven to succeed because they know the rest of the mission is relying on their success.  They are given the big picture to provide context and truly believe they are a part of something greater than themselves.
  • They prepared…and prepared…and prepared…and were ready for anything: The level of testing and simulations the teams underwent before launch, during the journey to Mars, and right before landing meant the team felt they were able to handle any contingency.  Leadership understood the importance of gelling as a team, practicing skills until mastery, and throwing in trouble scenarios so the team could learn how to handle them in a low risk environment.  This level of practice lent skills and cohesion that resulted in a successful rover landing…even though the method used to land the rover had never been used before.
  • The work captures the hearts as well as the minds: One of the project’s scientists told the story of when he was a kid and the first Voyager photos from Mars were published in the ’70s.  He said, “That’s the day I became a planetary scientist.”  He basically is working on the project he dreamed about when he was little. The ability to emotionally connect with one’s  work is powerful. Simon Sinek’s excellent TED talk and book Start With Why discusses the need to understand who you are as a company and then let all things flowing from there.  The scientists working on Curiosity knew why they were there, and the long hours and stress were truly a labor of love.
  • They celebrate their wins: Just watch the reaction of the team once Curiosity safely touched down on the surface of Mars.

True, most of us will never get a chance to work on a project like landing a rover on another planet so far away that it takes 14 minutes for radio signals to reach it.  But when you think about it, none of the things that make those NASA geeks so excited are really out of reach for companies.  It’s about letting your people use their strengths to move the company forward on ambitious goals that everyone understands and connects to.  Each person knows what their role is and why it’s important.  They can be emotionally committed to the work.  And everyone can celebrate their wins and learn from their mistakes.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out.

If you don’t like the culture, it’s probably your fault

Once upon a time, I had a chance to work with a vendor with a really cool product that enabled you to measure the culture of your organization (they’re called RoundPegg – look them up, as they are awesome). At one point in the process, we had an option to decide to test the entire company and get a true measure of our culture, or handpick people we felt “represented” our culture. This was kind of a big deal, especially given where I was working at the time.

There was an unspoken concern that the results would tell us nasty things about the culture…things some of us acknowledged and wanted to fix. These were the same things that others chose to view as our “uniqueness”. Basically, we had to decide what reality we were willing to confront. Ultimately the decision was made to pick those who exemplified the aspirational culture and assess them.

I think this was a cop out, and I hope you do, too.

I will always remember the gist of what Natalie (one of the RoundPeggers) said about culture. In essence, she said that culture is made up of everyone and every interaction in the company. If it’s happening at your business, it’s a part of your culture. No amount of stacking the deck, wishing, words, or banners can change this. You have to accept the good, the bad, and the ugly of what you’ll find because only then will you know what you’re dealing with. And only then can you make the choice to change it.


Like water eroding sand, every action we take reinforces the path we have chosen. It’s simple neuroscience – the more we reinforce neural pathways, the stronger those connections become and the easier it is to perform those activities we regularly engage in. What paths have been reinforced in your world?

Because culture is made up of the people in the company, each of us has a responsibility to create the culture we want to work in. As employees, we can choose what behaviors we exhibit, being mindful of the impact we’re making. As leaders, we have an obligation to model the behaviors of the culture we want to build.

If the culture where you are isn’t what you want it to be, think about how you’re impacting that culture. Are you reinforcing the positive, or strengthening the negative? Every choice you make contributes your culture. So if you don’t like it, do something about it. Be proactive. Refuse to engage in gossip. Build relationships across functions. Tell a good joke. Host a two-minute dance party.

For goodness’ sake, do something.

But don’t blame anyone else. We’re all in this together.

A company’s culture is often buried so deeply inside rituals, assumptions, attitudes, and values that it becomes transparent to an organization’s members only when, for some reason, it changes.

Rob Goffee (1952–), US writer, consultant, and academic