Startups · Strategy

As a leader, does it pay to be an a-hole?

Nikola Aleksić QA Tester

Last updated on March 3rd, 2017

In many places online and in conversations with entrepreneurs I know I have heard people defend Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, who argued with an Uber driver on video which I came across on a thread posted here yesterday. Kalanick didn’t back down an inch.

Now most people are condemning him for being a billionaire and not understanding what his drivers, many of whom make close to the minimum wage, go through, but I have also heard others justify Kalanick’s actions by saying that you need to be a ruthless CEO to survive, especially when, in Kalanick’s case, your competitors are breathing down your neck and regulators are trying to shut you down.

With more startups vying for the same piece of the pie (and less venture capital going around), does it behoove all entrepreneurs to be a-holes? It seems other leaders such as Steve Jobs were terrible people and he is now regarded as one of the biggest visionaries in business...

Valerie Perlowitz

March 6th, 2017

It NEVER pays to be disrespectful, especially of your employees. In order to be a good leader, one needs to inspire confidence in the staff that it is worth their time to follow you down the path of growing a company. The more the employees understand WIIFM (What's In It For Me) the more they are willing to follow the leader. Lack of this trust, you end up with chaos and the employees creating a culture of discord which never inspires a potential buyer when a liquidity event occurs.


Josh Detweiler

March 9th, 2017

I absolutely disagree with your assertion that a leader is somehow justified in being an A-Hole due to his desire to move fast and compete. Travis Kalanick was way out of line, period. It's not the Uber driver's job to be the "better man" It was Kalanick's job. He's the leader and should lead by example. Tyrannical business leadership is a relic of past. It's our job as leaders to be able to "walk and chew gum". We may not always be loved by those around us but in order to be respected we must show respect first. Without respect, you won't get loyalty, without loyalty you won't get productivity.

Richard Giraud President of RGENT Computing Corporation

March 3rd, 2017

Being in a position of leadership requires hard decisions. Being in a position of leadership does not require being an egotistical prat.

Marvin Schuldiner Problem Solver at Sanns, LLC

March 3rd, 2017

What type of corporate culture do you want? Do you want your team always on edge because leadership are a-holes? You're likely to burn out and chew through a lot of employees. If you're an a-hole as leader, eventually you will be an a-hole to employees, vendors, investors and customers. Why? Because a-holes always show their true colors. Warren Buffett has done just fine as not an a-hole as leader.

Michael Hartzell Entrepreneur, Addicted to "Yes" - When Everyone Wins

March 10th, 2017

It is easy to observe from the outside, see bits and pieces, make judgment without understand reality.


The people who matter, those on the inside, those who have to "deal" or "cope" with the perceived leader as an A-Hole.


I feel fortunate after 30+ years working for the "meanist" and for the "nice guys"... and also leading thousands of people on teams in six states.


What it comes down to, there is always more to the story. The company mission/strategy may require a temporary "bootcamp culture" to accelerate new paradigms and habits in a team who is egotistical and much too comfortable. (Been there, done that) Other teams who have been in a fear culture for an extended time and limits their potential may need a culture to empower the talented.


Oddly, I was proved wrong on many occasions. I was convinced that a leader/manager could not be successful as an "A-hole" (and other types). I had already in my mind written off experienced managers/leaders and looking for their replacement. Before doing so, I observed more closely the team, the performance results, turnover rates, etc. Surprisingly... the results were as good and/or better as those who were considered "nice guys".


What I came to realize is how "expectations" is a key element vs "the type". "Firm, fair and consistent" principles by an "A-hole" or a "nice-guy" delivered similar results.


Based on this, what did make for a bad team was a manager/leader who appeared to have bi-polar style.... one week happy and positive nice-guy and the next week a serious, mean "A-hole". The unpredictability had/has a a serious impact on the results.


I neither defend or support Travis Kalanick's behavior. It is pretty obvious that more serious questions need to be asked and there is more to learn.


There are moments in a company that "battle stations" are called for. Emergencies happen and people are dependent on results. This requires discipline and many times the human side will not immediately respond in a manner that is best for all concerned. How can that be achieved? There are too many variables and there is no one-size fits all solution for every phase of business and all leaders.


It is a battle for the companies who are disrupting the market. Not an excuse or reason for being an A-hole. New skills are needed and leaders such as Travis Kalanick can't flip a switch to instantly acquire them. I bet he will make an app for that.

Jeanne Alford An expert coach in communications & PR development

March 10th, 2017

Yes, a handful of entrepreneurs have been characterized as a-holes. Underscore...a handful. A very small, infinitesimal number. That should tell you that the rate of a-hole does not correlate with success. I worked for several billionaire founders who were strong leaders, respected their staff and inspire greatness in all. Bob Noyce (Intel) and Ray Dolby (Dolby Laboratories) come to mind. There is no excuse for bad behavior.

Frank A Graphic Designer, UX/UI Crafter, Prototype Builder

March 12th, 2017

I would simply recommend being yourself. If you actually ARE an a-hole, too bad for you...and the people you work with...and the people you live with...and the people you... you get the idea.

Anne Keller Midstream gas business, NGL logistics expert

March 3rd, 2017

If you mean this literally in dollars, check out our current President. The in your face, ultimatum style can get things done. If you mean will you make the optimum contribution to your team, your friends, and your business - obviously not, when you alienate people who might otherwise have helped you. You just don't know what you left on the table in that scenario.

Juan Zarco Managing Director, Silicon Valley Ventures Growth Partners llp

March 3rd, 2017

The latest NYT revelations about the "Greyball Tool" will put the nail on the coffin on Kalanick's leadership. Now every regulatory body worldwide will question the company's operations with fines and injunctions. Remember what happened to Volkswagen and its emission testing programs? Uber's valuation will drop no less than 20% when adding the video and sexual abuse. Like in baseball, 3 strikes and then you are out. So much for leadership.

Aurangzeb (Zabe) Agha Entrepreneur come techie and product manager

Last updated on March 4th, 2017

It may pay to be an a-hole, but I think the bigger question is: Is that the person you want to be? Is that how you want others to think of you?


I think there's an altogether different question as to whether you can become an a-hole if it's not in your nature to be one.


Success/Winning--like anything in life--is about trade-off's: Commitment to your work vs. your own leisure/family; single-focused-drive vs. being distributed across multiple projects/tasks, etc. You might win or find more success by being an a-hole, but you might not. For example, in my company, we have a "No a-hole" Rule: We don't work with them. Be they contractors, vendors or even prospective customers, we won't work with the. Also, by sacrificing kindness to others, you risk yourself being the recipient of a-hole-ness by others.


As Mahatma Gandhi said: “We but mirror the world. All the tendencies present in the outer world are to be found in the world of our body. If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.59 As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. This is the divine mystery supreme. A wonderful thing it is and the source of our happiness. We need not wait to see what others do.”