Some years ago, I worked for a gruff, old-fashioned newspaper editor whom I liked and admired — except when he was being a jerk. Like Jill Abramson, The New York Times' recently fired executive editor, my old boss had high standards, and on good days was an inspirational leader. But whenever a subordinate fell short of his expectations, he became enraged. Frothing, he yelled, slammed desks, and publicly humiliated people. At meetings, editors tiptoed through their pitches, fearful of triggering his disdain or his rage. Once, when he went off on me in front of my staff, I waited until he calmed down, and told him if he did it again I would leave. To my surprise, he was contrite. He'd alienated a lot of people with his temper over the years, he said. "It's really hurt my career," he said, with sorrow. Six months later, he was gone from that job.
After decades of being bossed, and 16 years of bossing, I've developed a prime directive for bosses which will probably not be taught at Harvard Business School: Don't be a jerk. Organizations need hierarchies and leadership, so yes, you get to call some shots. You can be tough and demanding. But remember that your authority over other human beings is an artificial construct. You are not better than the people working for you. Fire people if you must, but humiliate no one. Be kind. Granted, many bosses don't operate this way, and I can understand why women in positions of power want the right to be as obnoxious and tyrannical as their male counterparts. But wouldn't it be better still if no boss could get away with acting like a jerk?
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- This is what happens when Republicans actually enact their radical agenda
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- The Obama administration's nonstop incoherence on ISIS
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- How I dug myself out of debt — and stayed that way
- 6 super-helpful iOS8 tricks you probably don't know about
- Why so many Christians won't back down on gay marriage
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- The European Union was supposed to end nationalism. It gave it new life instead.
Subscribe to the Week