Nice Guys Don’t Finish Last

The Power of the OtherI (Dr. Cloud) had a very interesting conversation recently with a leader who accomplishes a lot and is very driven and effective. I have always been a fan of his work. We were working on a project together, and he made a reference to a particular work habit of his, logging almost every thought he has about his work into a very complicated matrix in a journal, and I asked him about it. Nothing wrong with carrying a little book around and jotting down good ideas when they come. But this was much more; it was obsessive. He said, “I think it’s probably part of my anxiety disorder.”

I inquired more, and he told me that he had been managing a significant anxiety disorder for some time and had relied on a number of tricks and habits to keep it in check. As I listened, I couldn’t help being moved by how much effort it must cost and how distressing it must be for him to manage this condition. I also couldn’t help wondering how much better his life and work could be if he didn’t have to do all that. The psychologist in me had to speak up.

“So, . . . I’m just curious. You know, what you’re experiencing is treatable. Anxiety disorders are pretty fixable. You don’t have to suffer with this—really,” I said. “Why don’t you get some help for this?”

“I would,” he said, “but I am afraid to.”

“Afraid of what?” I asked.

“Afraid that I wouldn’t be as effective,” he said. “I’ve always thought that the anxiety I have about something possibly going wrong or not working is what makes me so good at what I do. I always make sure, and double make sure, everything is covered and nothing can possibly go wrong. I feel like if I weren’t anxious, I would miss a lot of things and there wouldn’t be the same results.”

“Wow!” I said. “I wonder how people without anxiety disorders ever accomplish anything.” I was joking—sort of, but not really. But he didn’t quite get it.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I’d fear that I couldn’t perform at the same level if I didn’t have the anxiety.”

Incredible, I thought. Still, I’ve heard some version of this explanation many times before and in many different kinds of situations. For example, often when I give a talk about how leadership, character, emotional intelligence, and relational issues affect results, I invariably get a question like this: “You are saying that all of this relational ability is important for leadership and getting results, and being successful. But what about someone like Steve Jobs? He was very successful and known to be difficult to work with in some of these ways. How do you explain that? It seems like it’s the hard-driving, dominating behavior that gets some people where they are. It’s always the jerks that are most successful.”

Or consider an e-mail I recently received from a well-known national news commentator who in her reporting continues to run into powerful and successful people who are “not good guys,” as she put it. She’d sent me a link to an article concluding that “mean” people and “jerks” tend to be more successful than the “nice guys” in all areas of business, entertainment, and other fields. Her comment about the article was this: “This is depressing. Do you agree with this? I am starting to believe it, based on my experience.”

Both of these examples underscore the same false assumption: the myth that something dysfunctional is contributing to success. You’ve heard it too with comments like this: “He’s such a jerk, but I guess that’s how he got to where he is.” Or even: “If I were more of a shrew at work, I probably would be running this company.”

Trust me. Neither statement is true. Being a jerk, or a narcissist, or having an anxiety disorder that drives one to double-check everything—these are not the personality traits that make for great success. Remember, there are also an awful lot of unsuccessful jerks, narcissists, screamers, and people with anxiety disorders. And there are a lot of very effective, successful people who have none of those maladies.

The truth is that Steve Jobs was successful because of incredible talent, brains, vision, marketing abilities, design strengths, charm, and initiative. He was assertive, he had amazing reservoirs of creative energy, and he didn’t hesitate to push people to their limits and beyond. These are all positive attributes that made him successful.

The jerk behavior just got in the way, unless you think getting fired, losing key people and relationships, and creating sometimes toxic environments are the recipe for an iPhone. It was not the oppressive, domineering behavior that made it all work. Apple worked in spite of it and probably could have been even more outstanding without it. What if he had never gotten fired? What might the company have done if he’d been less difficult?

Mark these words: Nice guys do not finish last, and jerks do not finish first. Great performers finish first, and if they are great and good people, they do even better.


Click to Tweet: Nice guys do not finish last, and jerks do not finish first. Great performers finish first, and if they are great and good people, they do even better


As research confirms, the qualities that lead to great performance are only enhanced in great relationships. The opposite is also true: great performance qualities are either limited or reduced by dysfunctional relationships. On page 5 of Working Together: Why Great Partnerships Succeed (HarperCollins, 2010), former Disney CEO Michael Eisner reminisced about his longtime business partner:

“We were headed into the toughest challenge of our professional lives, together. For the next ten years, that journey would be as exciting, enjoyable, rewarding, and triumphant as either of us could have dared to hope. From our first day in the office that fall, my partnership with Frank Wells taught me what it was like to work with somebody who not only protected the organization but protected me, advised me, supported me, and did it all completely selflessly. I’d like to think I did the same for Frank, as well as the company. We grew together, learned together, and discovered together how to turn what was in retrospect a small business into indeed a very big business. We learned that one plus one adds up to a lot more than two. We learned just how rewarding working together can be.”

I love those words: protected, advised, supported, selfless, grew, learn, discover, rewarding. Your life, performance, health, well-being, and pretty much everything you value depends on the power that the other brings to the table. This is serious stuff. It’s not for jerks.


Taken from The Power of the Other by Dr. Henry Cloud. Learn more about Dr. Cloud’s newest bestseller!

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  1. Vicki says

    What do “edifying” words of a nice coworker sound like when trying to help the “jerk” peer coworker who thinks they are just being assertive when they are actually being aggressive, offensive, and creating a toxic work environment for their peers?

    • Katherine says

      Having dealt with this just yesterday, I think of the saying that “we sometimes learn what something is by contrasting what it isn’t.” In my case, I had to definitely stay away from saying anything that was obviously destructive, and then go ahead and say what needed to be said, trusting that in the absence of mean-spiritedness, the words I was using were by definition edifying, even though a person might not have been able to look at them out of context and think they were particularly calculated to sound fluffy and happy.

      I also didn’t say “you do such and such,” but “it seems to me that I and others can’t do such and such the way we need to because there’s a problem with how you take it.” I’m not perfect at speaking, but making everything about me and my view keeps things from escalating the way they would if the aggressive person heard a lot of “you” statements.

      Then, once the problem was stated, and initial comments were given on both sides, I didn’t let the conversation drag on, I just left the statement there and walked away; but the next times that person and I were together, I acted like things were great between us and I was just interested in his day and I had nothing against him, (because I really don’t, if the habit he has gets fixed). You want to continue to show that this one interaction didn’t leave you with a great dislike of him or her, because then the person will discount what you said. I do think I had a little luck, but I was pleasantly surprised how well he took my comment, and I think I got him to think.

      You probably can’t do any of this, though, without taking quite some time and effort first, to consistently show this person that you’re on his or her side, and you basically are willing to always consider him or her a great human being, putting emotional credit in the bank. No way could I have mentioned any issues with my person except that we’ve basically had a good relationship for a long time. If you don’t have the love and feeling that you want his or her good already in your heart, then you’re probably not the person who should say anything about the issue this time. You can let it lie while you build up the credit and address it later if it continues, or you can find someone else who could address it now.

  2. Amanda says

    I feel the same way as the notebook guy and have been working on creating an organization method for all my thoughts like that as well — I’d like to see what his looks like. (I’m a research scientist and PhD student) I have also been considering the fact that it’s so time consuming and I’m drowning g in all these notes I don’t have time or opportunity to do something with and they just add up and create distracting clutter. I have also considered that they add to my anxiety and distract me— and to choose not to write down every thought… but find myself fearing the same thing this guy does — which is losing the information or forgetting valuable insight (since I often do lose my train of thought pretty easily as someone with adhd). However all the post it’s and notes are so unorganized it’s a nightmare to even look at them and I rarely if ever look at them again… Hence why I’ve started working on a system for organizing all those thoughts too (it may also be an adhd thing, or an intellectual creativity thing, ocd or anxiety thing, or a research scientist thing— most likely a combination of them at work here) … are you able to share what his notebook looked like and or what you suggest doing as an alternative? It is quite exhausting but we have some valuable insights that pop up at various moments we don’t want to forget /lose and fear we will if we don’t get it on paper (problem is I write downs so many ideas I have no time to actually make use of them)

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