About 15 or 16 years ago, I attended a fundraising dinner honoring a prominent businessman. It was, by every normal measure, a resoundingly successful event. I remember there were upwards of 1,500 people there, nearly all of them business associates beholden to the honoree in one way or another, so much so that they were willing to pay a premium to be in his presence.
Tributes to this captain of industry flowed generously from the official rostrum. But at the tables and in the lobby, attendees were trading stories illustrating how detestable a person this honoree was. Hardly a person who knew him, professionally or otherwise, could deny that he could be verbally abusive, self-absorbed, vindictive and generally unpleasant.
Everyone involved with the organization of this event knew
of these not-so-wonderful traits; it would be hard not to know. But he had had
a truly transformative impact on his industry, not to mention on the fortunes
of many of the people at the dinner. In spite of his temperamental flaws, he
was able to pack the ballroom. All for a good cause.
I mention this by way of recalling that at about this time last year the political leaders of this country did something we rarely see: they actually took into account the bad behavior of a candidate for a public office.
I’m referring to John Bolton (left), who, according to pretty much everyone (though I can’t confirm this firsthand, of course), was reputed to have a tempestuous personality. He was prone to shouting at, belittling and threatening colleagues, particularly subordinates; in one case, he directed his wrath at a career intelligence officer at the State Department who refused to bend what he knew to be true to fit Bolton’s ideological agenda. At a certain point during the debate around Bolton’s nomination to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, even many of his Republican supporters conceded that he was not Mr. Congeniality. His confirmation stalled in the Senate, and the White House, ever afraid to appear afraid of criticism, pushed his nomination through in a recess appointment. It remains to be seen whether Bolton will make it back to the U.N. when that appointment expires.
What’s so disappointing about that episode was how rare
it was. Too infrequently does bad behavior trump other character traits.
We can all cite examples of the men and women who are revered in their communities (or by whole nations) for their genius, and even for their humanity and unselfish service to the public, but who are also well-known for their hot tempers, for brow beating effectively defenseless underlings and for otherwise making life miserable for all within their orbit.
Why doesn’t this count? Why, when we assess a person’s
worth, does personality usually figure so low in the calculus, unless of course that person’s
contributions are meager in other ways that do "count?" And why are these people so often rewarded with top jobs, where they terrorize subordinates and do damage to the organizations they are supposed to be serving?
That’s why, leaving aside what you think of his philosophy and his politics, and of the fact that the White House essentially ignored all the appeals to civility, the debate about John Bolton was an unusually bright moment in our national discourse. For once we openly acknowledged what everyone was whispering out in the hallway. For once something that can have a debilitating effect on organizations and certainly within households is raised to its proper level of importance. For once we noted that being a jerk is as much an impediment to job performance (particularly one that requires diplomacy) and to one’s contributions to society as anything else.
How self righteous I am, you may say. Fair enough. I admit that it can be hard to judge, let alone forge much consensus around, when a person’s behavior is truly beyond the pale. You can always find
some people who will defend those actions and others who will account for the cirumstantial evidence.
And while I consider myself a nice guy most of the time, I, like anyone else, have my assholic moments. Also, I must confess that my own job benefitted from that fundraiser I attend 15 or 16 years ago. So maybe I, too, in some way rationalized what happened there because it was too inconvenient to do otherwise. I understand this isn't simple.
I’m talking about people who have clearly and chronically passed an admittedly
hazy line of what’s nice and what’s not. I'm talking about the equivalent of regularly and with impunity going 70 in a 40 mile-per-hour speed zone and weaving recklessly across lanes, while most of the rest of us are generally following the rules but only occasionally going 10 or 15 miles over the limit.
I’m happy to say that behavior can count for something if people resolve to make it count. I’ve noticed that in my current workplace, prima donnas and those who generally don’t play well with others don’t fit in well and tend not to stay long –- or if they do, they find their roles marginalized because nobody wants to work with them. There seems to be an unspoken, but I think consciously formed, ethic that no one should be forced to suffer such colleagues, and the truth is it just gets in the way of our doing a good job. Maybe that’s why my office leadership has created and maintained that culture. I think it's no coincidence that we're also a successful business.
This just in. As I was finishing this entry, my wife and daughter emerged from the TV room to report that Harold Dieterle
(left) had won the title of America's Top