Do Nice Managers Really Finish Last?

Why a Tough Manager is the Best Manager.

Disagreeable people are more successful.

Ravi Shankar Rajan
May 24, 2019 · 7 min read
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Everybody likes to be liked.

And unless you’re the type of manager who revels in tyranny, it’s only natural to seek the favor of your underlings. But there’s a big difference between engaging with employees and fawning over them.

In an era when the virtues of a collegial and collaborative environment are widely espoused, there’s guilt associated with being a strong-handed manager.

Managers are often afraid to pull rank for fear they’ll fall out of grace with their reports and spoil team camaraderie if they’re not nice. “So many leaders, supervisors, and bosses suffer from a nice-guy conflict,” says Bruce Tulgand, author of It’s Okay to Be the Boss: The Step-by-Step Guide to Becoming the Manager Your Employees Need.Managers are afraid that people will think they’re a jerk.”.

That said, being nice is overrated. In fact, a 2011 study, “Do Nice Guys–and Gals–Really Finish Last?” posits that disagreeable people are more successful.

And some of the world’s best visionaries: Steve Jobs, Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos who awed us with innovative, courageous, persistent and creative ways of building businesses are not really the nicest of managers.

And given the extraordinary success of these men, the obvious question is whether being relentlessly hard on people and even cruel, may get them to perform better.

There is no clear “No” to this question but there is a systematic method in their madness. And employees, in turn, are willing to sacrifice a lot to work for a visionary. Much as Mr. Jobs was, Mr. Musk and Mr. Bezos are passionate, inspiring and charismatic leaders.

And here is how they do it.


Perhaps Steve Jobs’ style is the best example that demonstrates that everything we have learned so far about managing teams, building consensus and collaboration is wrong.

Jobs build the most valuable company in the world by ignoring traditional leadership styles. He frequently ranted, threatened and made embarrassing outbursts against his employees and rivals. He even publicly cried sometimes.

So when can this trait work?

A consensus is not required

The leader is the best in his field and knows what is to be done. He does not need to take buy-ins from anybody. Jobs was not interested in consensus. He didn’t care if people agreed with him. He felt that he knew better than his employees or even the consumer. He insisted on having his way.


The leader needs to build the focus of the team towards a select set of objectives and anything outside the focus area is just not important to the organization. Rather than explore many directions, the leader feels his job was to pare down what organization was working on and make it the best in class.

Commitment to the vision

The leader has a set defined vision in his mind and he does not need to care or think what others think as long as the goal gets accomplished. The end justifies the means. Push the team hardest possible to achieve the vision and serve the customers.


History has many leaders like Julius Caesar and Alexander the great who have used sarcasm very effectively to play on their people’s fears and motivate them into fighting wholeheartedly against their enemies.

As Oscar Wilde has rightly said “Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit but the highest form of intelligence” which should be used very carefully to bring the right results.

Using sarcasm, however, is not without risks. This may be very beneficial for improving team bonding and commitment establishment provided the leader has achieved a high degree of familiarity with the team.

Thus the right audience and the right circumstance (strike the iron while it is hot!!!) is very important for sarcasm to be effective.


Some of the most successful CEOs like Bill Gates, Larry Ellison, and Steve Jobs are reported to have huge tempers and management experts now admit that this style of functioning when handled appropriately may be hugely beneficial to employees and company as a whole.

Most of us have been taught that effective managers swallow their anger and frustration and get on with their work. But that is far away from reality. Everyone gets angry and managers are also humans only!!!

So how does Anger help?

Anger creates a focus in the team

An angry manager is bad news for the team and the team will try its best to make sure that the source of anger is eliminated as soon as possible. There is no distraction, no multi-tasking, and wishy-washy items now; there is only a strong sense of focus to get it done; that is, it.

Anger ignites the innovation spark

Many a time a solution which has not been working for quite some time in spite of the best efforts of the team suddenly gets fixed by an influx of ideas generated in the heat of the moment.

The team coordinates and brainstorms together genuinely and starts coming with new ways of thinking not thought before. That is the power of an angry outburst from an effective manager.

However, anger has to be used very carefully by the manager. A frequently angry manager loses his respect and thereby dilutes the potency of the trait.


This is one of the most misunderstood of all traits. Recently there has been so much discussion on ego-less leadership and this has led us to believe that leader should dissolve his or her ego. Our ego is the self-identity our mind constructs from what we experience, think or believe about ourselves.

Ego carries out life’s directive to survive by adapting to adverse environmental or organizational conditions. Senior leaders often have large egos; it’s what helped them survive the trip to the top of their organization.

So is ego good or bad?

The answer is good if the ego is healthy.

A healthy ego is required in leaders to lead well and motivate teams. A healthy ego derives its strength from self-esteem and confidence which stems from knowledge, experience, and the resounding reality that “been there done that” attitude.

Confidence and self-esteem allow us to fully step into our role without being distracted by the burden of our responsibilities and to focus on the broader mission.

The bigger the leadership role, the healthier is the ego required.

So what do good managers do with their healthy ego?

· They support and pay attention to all the superstars in their team and help them to win, even if it means surpassing their value.

· They empower people and produce new leaders — make themselves dispensable so that they have free time for greater things.

· They are not controlling freaks. They value different opinions and encourage them large- heartedly.

· They are charismatic. Their ego never allows them to indulge in stealing credit from others or bending rules and ethics.

· They love delegating work and watching their subordinates succeed. Their success further fuels their ego.


There is a famous quote that “you cannot argue with the crazy”. This holds good for some of the most successful leaders today. They are rebellious; they are crazy and they think they can get away with anything they think!!!

Throughout history, such leaders have made lasting change.

From business innovators like Steve Jobs to social activists like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., such leaders can create long-lasting visions. They challenge the accepted thinking, persist through hardship and eventually produce change.

So what do crazy leaders have in common?

· They constantly churn “out of the boxes” ideas and dole out new challenges to the team.

· They don’t care what others think.

· They take “No” as a challenge.

· They do not abide by the rules.

· They are crazy enough to trust themselves.

· They do not fear repeated failure.

So being a little crazy is not a negative trait provided, the “big picture” of the result of the craziness is conveyed by the leader in an effective way.

Last Thoughts

So what’s a manager to do today? What’s the right answer? Should managers strive to be nice rather than tough?

No. And Yes.

The fact is, leadership can’t be boiled down to one singular dimension. An HBR study found that employees who worked for a solely “tough” leader had engagement scores of 8.9%.

Those who worked for solely “nice” leaders had even lower scores: 6.7%. But, for those who reported working for leaders who were both tough and nice, the engagement levels rose to 68%.

Tough and nice. Leadership isn’t just one thing. Great leaders embrace paradoxes- seemingly contradictory strengths — to achieve an internal balance.

If they didn’t do so, one strength would get so overused so as to become a liability.

As rightly told by President Ronald Reagan

When you can’t make them see the light, make them see the heat, that is leadership.

About the author-:

Ravi Rajan is a global IT program manager based out of Mumbai, India. He is also an avid blogger, Haiku poetry writer, archaeology enthusiast and history maniac. Connect with Ravi on LinkedIn, Medium and Twitter.

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Ravi Shankar Rajan

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Technology Manager,Poet,Archaeology Enthusiast,History Maniac.Also a prolific writer on varied topics from AI to Love.

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