Should Bosshole CEOs Be Fired?

It was probably Stanford professor Bob Sutton who ignited the whole bitchfest about bad bosses with his bestselling book, The No A--hole Rule. It appealed to workers in a visceral way, provided eyeball-catching fodder for the media and opened the floodgates on what has become a national obsession.

The timing of the book couldn’t be better. The advent of social media and the blogosphere – the perfect medium for the disaffected with an axe to grind and those who see themselves as perpetual victims – certainly didn’t hurt the mass appeal of the notion of a workplace without bullies and jerks.

After all, who wouldn’t want a boss that’s kind, empathetic, respectful, understanding, fair-minded and relaxed under pressure, even when everything’s going wrong and his butt’s on the line? That’s sort of a no-brainer, right?

We might as well wish for peace on Earth, kids that do as they’re told and never push our buttons, perfect parents and in-laws, a spouse that never blows up and doesn’t mind our idiosyncrasies and indiscretions, friends that always have our backs and a government that doesn’t routinely manipulate and lie to us for political gain.

We might as well ask, why can’t we all just get along? The simple answer is that we’re human, this is the real world and that’s not how things work.

We evolved in a competitive ecosystem and fought our way to the top of the food. We are a complex race of diverse individuals who behave as we will in reaction to each other, not to mention an endless array of stressful situations that life routinely throws at us in real-time, and when we least expect it.

All things considered it’s remarkable that we get along and get things done as well as we do.

The fact that we’ve somehow managed to organize cities and nations that occasionally live in peace is a testament to how far our civilization has come. Not to mention that you can get Starbucks and McDonald's in probably 100 countries. That’s got to count for something.

But some people are never satisfied with the real world. They want utopia. Whenever an episode of reported bad behavior – usually by a high-tech wunderkind like the late great Steve Jobs, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel or Uber’s uber-competitive CEO Travis Kalanick – comes to light, it raises the same old questions:

Are these people wired to be arrogant jerks and is that what makes them successful founding CEOs in highly competitive markets?

Is “insensitive bully” written somewhere in their job spec, or maybe it’s something in the water in Silicon Valley?

Do VCs and boards enable or perhaps even reward bad behavior by kowtowing to their entrepreneurs and executives like they’re medieval monarchs?

Shouldn’t these jerks be fired and why do VCs even fund them in the first place?

Besides what we’ve already discussed about human behavior, this perennial witch-hunt for bossholes has three gaping holes (no pun intended):

First, it’s entirely subjective and circumstantial. Nobody’s a jerk all the time and to everybody. After all, one person’s jerk is another’s best friend or loving spouse. If you look under the hood, it generally comes down to how people with different personalities, styles and capabilities react and interact under stress. There is no absolute.

And how exactly do you define bosshole? Do you just call out the bullies or include micromanaging control freaks, as well? How about manipulative, power-hungry, passive-aggressive political players? If boards started listening to every complaint by every disaffected, whiny employee we’d all be fired ten times over. And don’t say emotional intelligence. The testing is remarkably flawed and non-predictive of anything.

Lastly, do you really want to defund or fire some of the most brilliant stars of the business world because they ruffle a few feathers, have sharp elbows, are rough around the edges and piss some people off when it’s that “conquer the world and take no prisoners” attitude that makes them so successful? If you did that, there would be no Apple, Microsoft, Oracle, Facebook … I can go on and on.

These are all the reasons why, as a practical matter, employees are not generally fired for being jerks, bossholes, broholes, bullies, or any other subjective label, for that matter. But top executives are often terminated for being ineffective or incompetent, being in over their heads, and chronically being their own worst enemy or more trouble than they’re worth.

There are plenty of examples, including former Microsoft president of Windows Steven Sinofsky, and ex-Apple mobile software chief Scott Forstall. Both were highly effective senior executives with a dark side: they were chronically abrasive and divisive. And both were shown the door despite their brilliant track records.

And it’s not limited to the high-tech industry, either. I remember when Jeffrey Kindler flamed out as CEO at Pfizer. The media painted a picture of an antagonistic and micromanaging executive, but I think that behavior only led to his demise because he was in over his head and couldn’t handle it, so his issues got the better of him.

That sort of thing happens a lot. It happens all the time.

As for executives being singled out and fired just for being abusive jerks, I don’t see that happening anytime soon, nor should it. It’s simply too subjective and probably a big part of what makes some business leaders successful at their jobs.

As for the periodic bosshole witch-hunt, I’m sure that academics and the media will continue the pursuit as long as they have an audience with eyeballs and wallets.