The Talented Jerk vs. the Sweetheart Hack (Part II)

Why Jerks So Often Succeed, and How to Avoid Becoming One of Them

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Sally Hogshead
Sally Hogshead
I once had a boss who told me that I should not smile if I wanted to be respected.

(Hello, asshole.)

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.

Let's take power, for instance. We're controlled by this trigger throughout daily life: When you brake for a stop sign, or remove your shoes for TSA, or agree to iTunes' "terms of use" policy, you're doing so under the influence of the power trigger. Unsurprisingly, this is often the trigger of choice for politicians, CEOs and companies that need to control behavior in order to succeed. Power isn't necessarily overpowering. It can guide gently, even lovingly. It's a necessary ingredient in many forms of structure, training and motivation to achieve higher result.

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:

  1. Provokes strong and immediate emotional reactions
  2. Creates advocates
  3. Becomes "cultural shorthand" for a specific set of actions or value
  4. Incites conversation
  5. Forces competitors to realign around it
  6. 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.

These hallmarks hold true for messages, and brands, as well as leaders. In order to make any real change, a boss' voice must be heard. If a leader can't sell an idea internally, or get shareholders excited, or continually push for innovation, then they lack the juice to get big ideas and big initiatives through the company. As Kirsten Osolind, CEO of Re:Invention Marketing, observed, "Leaders need to use their best judgment at all times. Effective leadership depends on situation, context and timing. One leader's most appealing trait can be another leader's downfall. There is no right or wrong leadership trait checklist. Sometimes the most effective leadership technique is counter-intuitive to outsiders. Girls gymnast coach Bela Karolyi was hot-tempered -- and it worked. FedEx founding CEO Fred Smith leads tough-guy truck drivers and is quiet and soft-spoken. Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest Airlines, leads a highly regulated industry with humor. ... 'Nice' and 'compassionate' can be detrimental leadership techniques. Ask any Navy SEALs master chief."

Yet a gift for influence is not without controversy. Some of the most influential people are also the most polarizing: the rock stars, the lighting rods, the challengers. Politicians can earn tremendous support from one group and denunciation from others: Sarah Palin. Rudy Giuliani. Ann Coulter. In media, think of Arianna Huffington and Glenn Beck. In fashion, think of larger-than-life personalities like Isaac Mizrahi, Betsey Johnson or Tom Ford. Business leaders such as Richard Branson and Warren Buffett. Musicians such as Madonna and Sean Combs. The sports world brings us Dennis Rodman, Barry Bonds and Andre Agassi.

Brand strategist Curvin O'Rielly offers David Ogilvy's thoughts on this leadership spectrum in the creative department of an ad agency: "In my experience, there are five kinds of creative director: 1. Sound on strategy, dull on execution; 2. Good managers who don't make waves ... and don't produce brilliant campaigns either; 3. Duds; 4. The genius who is a lousy leader; 5. 'Trumpeter swans' who combine personal genius with inspiring leadership." Ogilvy's first three personality types can sometimes fall into the "sweetheart" variety, because they're more concerned with being liked than respected. But what exactly is the "trumpeter swan," a.k.a. the "talented sweetheart"?

When I asked about the most desirable leadership traits on Facebook and Twitter, answers were remarkably consistent: earning respect rather than fear, and encouraging others to succeed rather than focusing on one's own success. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" says, "Any effort that has self-glorification as its final endpoint is bound to end in disaster." In his best seller "Good to Great," Jim Collins agrees, points out that inflated self-importance can interfere with the success of your product or organization.

Personalities that are both strong and effective focus their efforts on making their message, and their teams, more persuasive. Dan Fietsam of Energy BBDO remarks, "I look for leadership that I can trust on two fundamental levels -- I trust they have the talent to make things happen and I trust because their consistent intent is respect, directness, fairness and integrity. I value trust over sweetheartedness. Or assholeness." When this happens, it shows in the results. Michael Iva, president-creative director of Qually & Co., observes, "It is amazing how creative and productive people can be when everyone gets a share of the credit."

You do not have to be an asshole to be a loved and respected leader. But you do have to have the power to influence decision-making. Every persuasive brand does. Just as brands must influence customers, leaders must have the ability to inspire action among employees and clients.

So what about you? Are you using the power as your primary personality trigger? Used intelligently and selectively, this trigger strengthens your reputation and earns respect in a cluttered marketplace. Find out by taking the F Score personality test.

In my next column, I'll explore a markedly different type of trigger: Lust. Each fascination trigger elicits a different type of response, and the lust trigger encourages others to move closer with a promise of warmth and humanity.

Again, my thanks for sharing your opinions and insight with me online. If you'd like to share your thoughts on this topic, please do, at, or at

Sally Hogshead is the author if the newly released marketing book "Fascinate: Your 7 Triggers to Persuasion and Captivation." Her website is
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