Erik Proulx, creator of the movie Lemonade, comments: "I think it's hard to respect someone who doesn't respect someone who smiles." So what's the correlation between respect and intimidation? At what point does "leadership" turn into unadulterated jerkness?
Last week, I explored an issue on Facebook, posing the question: "Would you rather work for a talented asshole, or a sweetheart hack?" Since then, dozens of people have expressed that the former is far preferable to the latter. Jim Schmidt, partner at Downtown Partners in Chicago, said, "The fact is, most hacks are assholes. Because of their lack of talent they are usually uber-politicians -- especially in the big agencies where more money is at stake." Creative Director Jill Atkinson commented, "The Talented Jerk pisses you off but ultimately makes your work better. The sweetheart hack makes you feel comfortable and kisses your work goodnight -- the kiss of death."
But why? Why are talent and sweetness unlikely bedfellows?
In my book "Fascinate," I describe the seven different triggers that brands use to persuade consumers: trust, mystique, lust, prestige, alarm, vice and power. Asshole personalities overactivate the three most polarizing triggers: alarm, vice and power.
Like all seven triggers, power lives on a spectrum, ranging from delicate suggestion to crushing force. A meter maid uses a slight form of power, whereas a hijacker on a plane uses the same trigger to its maximum level. Gandhi persuaded differently than Genghis Khan, yet both commanded the multitudes. Used in the extreme, power can unjustly intimidate or persecute. Yet in positive circumstances, power can motivate others to rise to their best.
At what point does a leader turn into a dictator? It comes down to principles of branding. We all know that a watered-down message might not offend anyone, but it's less likely to inspire action or change opinions. In "Fascinate," I outline the traits of a fascinating brand and the need to elicit a clear response. A brand:
- Provokes strong and immediate emotional reactions
- Creates advocates
- Becomes "cultural shorthand" for a specific set of actions or value
- Incites conversation
- Forces competitors to realign around it
- Triggers social revolutions
At their best, highly persuasive personal brands offer the rare chemistry necessary to unite corporations and cultures, to influence behavior, sway opinion and incite action far more effectively than milder personalities. They use triggers with unusual vividness and intensity to get their messages across. These personalities get under our skin and into our conversations, often challenging our expectations and swaying our thinking. At their worst, the "talented assholes" can hit nerves and step on toes, lobbing interpersonal firebombs and torching relationships.