I recently had the good fortune of having dinner with one of the top executives in broadcasting when the topic of leadership came up as it related to driving change and real growth in our industry. This wasn’t a conversation about whether or not we could beat what the industry or market is doing or if we could increase our sales 5-6% over previous year.
This was a conversation about pushing ourselves to the max and really making our sales teams better and getting more out of them. This was a conversation about real leadership. The executive wanted to know if each of us was willing to be the “a**hole” that you sometimes need to be to make real change happen, or if we were just looking to be “Mr. Nice Guyl” and make friends.
The dinner was almost a month ago and I can’t stop thinking about his premise. Am I “Mr. Nice Guy?” Can I be an a**hole? And most importantly, do you really need to be an a**hole in order to drive change and be a great leader.
Often, as I’m sure most of you do, I turn to sports to look for my answers. Vince Lombardi. Bob Knight. Bill Belichick. Nick Saban. Bill Parcells. Bear Bryant. Scotty Bowman. Gregg Popovich. Mike Ditka. Tony LaRussa. Geno Auriemma.
I started to notice a trend. All of these names have, at one time or another, shown up on a list of some of the best coaches of all time. And, by all accounts, those that played for them would definitely NOT say they were “Mr. Nice Guy.”
As fans, we don’t often get to see the personal side of the players and coaches we love to watch, although being in the sports industry we’re much more likely than the average person to have spent at least some time around powerful sports figures away from the game. Often times, we see a very different side and walk away wondering how they can be such an a**hole on the sidelines or in an interview, and be so charming at other times.
I think with most of the people I named above, the reason is the same: the obsession with winning, and what makes them great leaders is often times the ability to think of nothing else and constantly be focused on only those things that will make their team better and be able to win more. And, while I can think of some names that would also be on that list of great coaches that, by all accounts, were more “Mr. Nice Guy,” (John Wooden, Dean Smith, Don Shula, Mike Krzyzewski to name a few), it seems they all had something in common as well in that they are all regarded as incredibly intelligent people.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t fall in to the “incredibly intelligent” category by anyone’s account (other than my maternal grandmother who thought I could do no wrong), so if I am truly good at what I do, I must have some a**hole in me.
Later on, my attention turned to this thought: if you do have to be an a**hole, how big of an a**hole do you need to be or how often do you have to be an a**hole to get what you want done? To me, this is the larger question. Nobody wants to work for a tyrant or someone regarded as an a**hole all the time. But, at the same time, I can’t think of a “Mr. Nice Guy” who really drove me to be better or who was willing to have difficult conversations in order to help me see where I could improve.
Like with most everything else we do as managers, it’s about balance. In this case, knowing when being the nice guy will get you where you want to be and knowing when it takes a much tougher approach. Many years ago, I was given the advice that you cannot manage everyone the same. A large part of a manager’s job is to identify how best to lead an individual. We want to get the best out of each member of our teams, and to do that, sometimes you have to pull it out of them with force, and with some, you need to cheer by their side as you casually push them in the right direction.
It’s not so much about how nice or how mean you can be, to me, it’s more about picking the right times. There’s a time and place for “Mr. Nice Guy” to come out, and there’s a time and place for “Mr. A**hole” to take over.