Three Times It’s Smart to Let Your Hot-Blooded Employees Show Their Temper
by Sunny Bonnell
I think we can all agree that rage has no place in the workplace. Well, that memo hasn’t ever made it to the desks of some of the country’s most successful (and notorious) CEOs and cultural titans. Some of them have become infamous for their foul tempers and abusive tendencies, and a cynic might argue that it’s their very ability to intimidate rivals that’s gotten them to the top.
For example, film producer Scott Rudin, who made The Truman Show among other hits, reportedly chewed through more than 250 personal assistants in five years, in some cases driving them away by hurling heavy objects. Oracle CEO Larry Ellison is well-known for his alpha gorilla antics when involved in hostile takeovers, once publicly insulting the CEO of PeopleSoft during a takeover and on another occasion, threatening to shoot a competitor’s dog. And back in 2009, then-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer stunned the attendees of an all-company meeting when he snatched an employee’s iPhone and pretended to stomp it into shards. Not cool.
Memorable stories? Sure. The keys to these men getting to the top of the corporate ladder? Hell so. In fact, we’d argue that the only reason tyrannical senior executives are able to get away with angry, bullying acts is that they are senior executives. They have power. If you or the two of us or some other rank-and-file cubicle dweller tried the same sort of shenanigans, we would be out on our butts before the ink on the termination papers was dry.
There are two huge problems with anger, rage, hot-tempered behavior, volatility — whatever you want to call it — in a corporate setting. First, it’s like steroids for stupidity. None of us is at our best when we’re furious. People make awful decisions out of anger: road rage, taking a swing at a friend, saying something inexcusable to a customer, and so on.
Second, rage from a corporate leader scares the crap out of everyone. Remember when you were a kid and your mom or dad really got mad at you and yelled? That was terrifying. It was like God was throwing lightning bolts at your head. When CEOs or other leaders stomp and bellow, workers cower, just trying to survive. Morale tanks because everybody is traumatized and walking on eggshells.
However, we don’t think it’s time to throw hot-bloodedness out with the bathwater. When it’s channeled in the right way, a hotheaded temperament can be a real asset to an organization, especially one that’s operating at a disadvantage to its competitors. After all, a hot-blooded nature doesn’t just reflect anger; it can also stem from passion, a fierce commitment to certain values, or a ferocious competitive drive. Those aren’t bad qualities to have in your corner in a dog-eat-dog world.
For example, Michael McMillan, president and chief executive officer of the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis, has said that the righteous anger that gripped Ferguson, Missouri after the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown was fuel for change. That anger turned into a determined passion to make something constructive out of tragedy, and that became the Ferguson Community Empowerment Center, which opened in 2017 upon the site of the burned-out convenience store where Brown had been accused of stealing on the day he was killed.
So intense, hotheaded emotion can be a good thing, but only if it is channeled toward valid goals and contained behind consistent firewalls. Even then, hot-blooded passion isn’t a fix for everything. Netscape co-creator and venture capital legend Marc Andreesen insists that passion is less important to a successful startup than becoming highly skilled in your field and creating a relevant product that you can build a company around. The self-styled entrepreneurs who are passionate about being their own bosses end up starting companies without purpose. “Startups that don’t start with a product but instead try to build one from scratch often, but not always, lack the passion…” he says. “They can work; particularly if the founder is good enough… but when they fail they will often feel sterile and contrived the entire way.”
What are the instances where righteous anger or competitive fury can work to the advantage of a manager, CEO or an entire organization? When and how should you feel free to let your company’s hotheads and firebrands off the leash? We’re glad you asked. Because in the right circumstances — three, to be exact — a hot-blooded nature can be a difference maker.
#1: Righting an injustice. The late, great fantasy writer and essayist Harlan Ellison once wrote a brilliant piece about getting even with a publisher that refused to give him back the rights to one of his books even after breaching contract. Ellison, an acerbic and notoriously cantankerous curmudgeon, began mailing bricks to the publisher’s offices. Hundreds of them. He had friends mail bricks, all wrapped in brown paper. Finally, when the publisher refused to comply, Ellison’s white-hot rage pushed him to one final step: he sent the publisher’s comptroller a dead gopher via third-class mail, which took about two weeks to arrive. Imagine the stench. The rights to the book were reverted the following day.
To be fair, today Ellison would probably be under arrest for bioterrorism, but that doesn’t obscure the point, which is that fury is useful when you’re trying to summon the energy to right a wrong against your company. If a competitor has violated a patent, libeled you in the press or stolen an idea, seeking redress can consume energy and resources that could be better used somewhere else. So release the hounds. Find the people in your company who will be like Javert running down Jean Valjean in the Paris sewers, give them ground rules (No harassment! No threats! No flaming bags of dog poop!), tell them what you want (legal evidence of wrongdoing, perhaps, or maybe just a public apology) and turn them loose. Nothing motivates like a crusade.
Word to the wise: Have someone keep tabs on your bulldogs, ensuring that while they might strike a little healthy fear into the heart of your opponent, they don’t go too far.
#2: To light a fire under your people. Nothing leads better than example, and seeing a few devil-may-care radicals pushing themselves beyond the limit of human endurance while high-fiving each other in the halls could be just the thing to pick up the morale of a department or a company that’s smarting and sulking after a defeat.
Say you lost a big client, your proposal was rejected, or you didn’t land that latest round of venture funding. Now everyone’s sitting around staring at the floor, sullen, waiting for the sky to fall. Time for your secret weapons. Just about every organization has them, the corporate equivalents of John Belushi in Animal House shouting, “Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor?” They’re the people who are just begging for a reason to give a speech, knock over a few chairs, and rally the troops. They look at even the smallest failure as a personal offense, and now they’re mad as hell and not going to take this anymore.
Word to the wise: When you turn your company hotheads into motivators, focus less on speechmaking and more on action. When you know who your gifted hotheads are, steer them toward a very visible project that seems nearly impossible, but is important to getting your organizational spirit back on track. The sight of a handful of indignant colleagues venting their wrath by working endless hours and pushing beyond all human limits will inspire everyone else to join in or do the same with their own work. Bingo. You’re back in business.
#3: Building your reputation. Back in the days of the legendary escape artist Harry Houdini, competition between illusionists and escape artists was intense. Not only would they try to steal one another’s tricks, but they would continually try to one-up each other with illusions and escapes that were more and more outrageous — or dangerous. The idea was to intimidate one’s rival magicians into thinking, “I can’t top what he’s doing without killing myself. He’s out of his mind.”
Fast forward to today and instead of Houdini, we have Steve Jobs. A magician to be sure, but also more than a little strange and tyrannical. But that was part of his mythology, and that myth helped create the iconic image of Apple as a place filled with free-spirited creative geniuses. Today, the cult of the brilliant CEO and the visionary company is built on the idea that being great means being a little “out there,” so why not leverage your habanero-blooded people to foster the reputation you want?
Word to the wise: You need people who aren’t just hot-tempered and bold but also competent and smart. They should also be able to take a lot of heat from reviewers, online commenters and the like. Turn them loose to speak at a major conference. Have them write a blistering piece for Forbes about your industry. Find them, coach them, and then make them the purveyors of your company’s image: a tough, passionate organization that doesn’t tolerate B.S.
We’re Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger, authors of Rare Breed: A Guide to Success for the Defiant, Dangerous, and Different (HarperOne), hosts, and executive producers. We’re also the co-founders of the award-winning branding agency Motto. Learn more about us and our book at [www.rarebreedbook.com.](http://www.rarebreedbook.com./)
© Sunny Bonnell and Ashleigh Hansberger 2020