The prototypical corporate titan in American business is a jerk.
From elementary school on, we’re taught about Andrew Carnegie’s abusive leadership; as adults we’re told that the obnoxious Steve Jobs was a genius and that Donald Trump, for all his hubris and excess, is the American dream personified. And while there was a brief period in the 1990s of praise for the nice corporate boss, who was great at “team building,” the shark in the $3,000 suit has made a comeback in recent times, now backed by research.
The Atlantic published a piece this week by Jerry Useem called “Why It Pays to Be a Jerk,” citing recent research from Amsterdam showing that narcissists who take credit, step on people and are abrasive climb to the top of the corporate ladder. In the piece, The Atlantic distinguishes between the mean bosses of old—labeled narcissistic takers—with the new “disagreeable givers,” who are jerks who temper their rudeness with rewards and benefits.
The Atlantic makes this sound like a positive, when it sounds a lot like the main character in Mommie Dearest: one minute berating underlings—in that case, her children—and the next, throwing them a lavish party. The jerk giveth, but … still a jerk, so can’t he or she taketh away? Still, who can argue if it works—allegedly? But in a world where black folks’ most basic behaviors are often viewed as threatening, aggressive or downright dangerous, does all of this corporate badassery really apply to us? The real data says no.
The return of the abrasive business leader is a sign of the growing confidence in America’s economy again. Consider that even in pop culture, Mad Men’s Don Draper represented the unassailable American power of the 1960s; Michael Douglas in Wall Street was the ultimate corporate raider-monster in the 1980s; and prickly but brilliant Tony Stark from Iron Man is the new business scion of President Barack Obama’s rebounding economy. So on cue, the return of praise for white male arrogance and aggression is bolstered by social science.
From The Atlantic: “Researchers have found that semi-obnoxious behavior not only can make a person seem more powerful, but can make them more powerful, period. The same goes for overconfidence. Act like you’re the smartest person in the room, a series of striking studies demonstrates, and you’ll up your chances of running the show.”
In other words, the guy who pushes people around and cuts you off during meetings probably also takes credit for ideas he didn’t fully come up with. But just when the whole project team is about to mutiny, he busts in on a Friday, gives everybody the day off and offers a free round of drinks at the local bar—and all is supposed to be forgiven. This guy is the model for corporate success?
There is some legitimacy to this, even across race and gender (you think Oprah Winfrey was so generous to her staff for no reason?). But let’s not be naive. White men who have dominated most professions—especially the higher echelons of management and business—were acting this way long before it was deemed “successful” by academics. The real question is whether this corporate model is actually applicable to anybody else.
White women have tried it, with reasonable success. The “Lean In” movement is basically an attempt to take the same straight-white-male corporate behavioral model and fit women into it. But can a black man get away with acting like a thesaurusful of synonyms for “a—hole” and rise to the top on the backs of white guys who aren’t as bold as he?
Of course not. It’s a ridiculous myth, but one that continues to confuse and constrain African Americans who are still making their way into rarefied areas of management and business that a generation ago were completely closed off to us.
The national media have finally caught on in the last few years to the fact that just living while black can be perceived as hostile by a large number of white Americans.
Black folks who move into a neighborhood are perceived as threatening; black folks who cheer too loudly at a graduation are seen as punishable—and that’s before we get into life-and-death situations. In corporate culture, which is so driven by the male ego, stratification and social norms, “assertive” behavior by African Americans—especially men—is not often seen as a positive trait. It’s viewed as disruptive, combative or aggressive.
Remember back in 2005 when The Apprentice was a legitimate hit show (before the addition of “Celebrity” turned it into a joke)? Randal Pinkett was a brilliant contestant who both charmed and outsmarted everyone else during the challenges. But during the live finale, Donald Trump, playing his role as the prototypical white business titan, threw a wrench at the black winner. He said that Pinkett was hired, but he went on to praise the first runner-up, Rebecca Jarvis, a 23-year-old white woman.
On live TV, Trump asked Pinkett whether he’d be willing to share his apprentice win with Jarvis, since she was just as impressive. Pinkett stared down Trump like Laurence Fishburne in Deep Cover and said, “Mr. Trump, I firmly believe that this is The Apprentice, that there is one and only one apprentice, and if you’re going to hire someone tonight, it should be one,” Pinkett said. “It’s not ‘The Apprenti’; it’s The Apprentice.”
Was Pinkett praised for his actions? Was he heralded as taking what was rightfully his? Nope. He got booed on live television. He was called “seflish” and ungrateful and was criticized loudly by frosty-highlighted-hair talking heads for weeks. See, all of that aggression and assertiveness is good—until it comes in conflict with the desires, needs or expectations of a white person.
And Pinkett isn’t the only example. But for every Reginald Lewis—who wrote Why Should White Guys Have All the Fun? and who kicked, fought and abused his way to owning a $900 million company by age 50—there are many more examples of black assertiveness in business being shut down, viewed as threatening or downright attacked.
So what’s the solution? Is there a space for African-American assertiveness in the workplace between the mythic ideal of while male privilege and Uncle Ruckus? Yes, it’s in entrepreneurship. For every Randal Pinkett, Reggie Fowler or other black man who has been told that he wasn’t ready for prime time or has had to scrape and grovel to get there, there are thousands of others who realize that the way to beat the corporate-culture game is to get out of it. Black folks have always become more successful in America by launching their own businesses, buying their own property, and creating their own ideas and projects than by trying to fit into a game that continues to be, if not rigged, then highly tilted against them.
This is not to say that you can’t be aggressive at work or stand up for yourself, but know that while we all read the same rulebook to get into that corporate world, there are some hidden pages that we seldom get to see. The Atlantic can praise those “disagreeable givers” all they want, but African Americans know that our best route has always been to take what we can and run with it on our own.
Jason Johnson, political editor at The Root, is a professor of political science at Morgan State’s School of Global Journalism and Communication and is a frequent guest on MSNBC, CNN, Al-Jazeera International, Fox Business News and SiriusXM Satellite Radio. Follow him on Twitter.