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Real (Male) Leaders Are Pains

Vivia Chen

February 23, 2012

Now that we know what the he-man lawyer should wear at work, the next question is how he should behave. If his goal is to ascend to the top of the heap (and what manly lawyer would want anything less?), he better make sure he's not some Mr. Nice Guy.

Angry© Dmytro Konstantynov - Fotolia.comIf you're a faithful Careerist reader, you probably already know that, since I gave you that nugget of advice last year (see "The Meanie Advantage"). In case you need reminding, there are economic reasons not to be so nice: Men who rank high on the agreeableness scale make substantially less money than men who are less agreeable, according to a study by Timothy Judge, Beth Livingston, and Charlice Hurst. (Being disagreeable didn't affect women's pay, says the study, because being disagreeable conforms to expectations of masculine behavior.)

Art Markman, a University of Texas business professor, recently picked up that thread in the Harvard Business Review, writing that "agreeable men were rated least attractive as potential leaders."

So what's the recipe for achieving this persona of disagreeableness? Markman gives us a sketch of this ideal leader:

    - He's not afraid to ruffle feathers.

    - He's not afraid "to tell people things that they do not want to hear."

    - He put himself forward for promotions first, which means "putting yourself before others."

But then Markman throws in this monkey wrench: "This is not license to be a jerk at work. The data also suggest that people lacking agreeableness are more likely to lose their jobs than agreeable ones." So the trick is to be disagreeable without being abhorrent. The article didn't say this, but I think it's a matter of being strategically disagreeable—which is another way of saying you've got to be political.

In any case, how can you achieve this just-right blend of disagreeableness? Markman suggests that you take a personality test: "Find one, take it, and get an objective sense of how agreeable you are." Depending on where you fall on the agreeable/disagreeable scale, HBR suggests the following:

1. If your personality leans to the agreeable, practice being critical. "Go out of your way to find the flaws in plans that you hear. Put aside your personal relationships and think about what can go wrong. . . .  Try practicing giving negative feedback with a friend first, before doing it for real."

2. If you are more disagreeable, learn empathy. "If you think you're developing a reputation for being unsympathetic, practice giving bad news to a friend. Find out which parts of your delivery are causing people to bristle. A strong leader can guide without being mean."

I didn't mind the HBR article until this last bit of advice about being empathetic. Somehow, it seems to have been thrown in to make it more socially acceptable. Do we honestly expect a self-confident, self-aggrandizing alpha male to be touchy-feely? Why should he put on the brakes if he's on a winning track?

Isn't it really those who are nice and sweet who need behavior modification? So can we just be honest and stick with the naked ambition program?

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Nice post, thanks for covering the HBR piece I wrote!

Real leaders serve, they don't rule; the yahoos who confuse leadership with bossiness are nothing but bullies, and deserve the fraggings they'll eventually get.

One of the nicest lawyers I know was the unofficial person in charge of firing people at two major firms during his tenure at those places. The firms believed he fired humanely. He did, and he hated it.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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