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Jerks are unpleasant to be around, but they get things done

Prime Minister Winston Churchill, accompanied by General Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander, inspects glider and paratroops of the U.S. Army in England.

Associated Press

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Pope Sixtus V enjoyed a short, remarkably effective run as leader of the Catholic Church during the late-16th century. He was the Rudy Giuliani of the Middle Ages—the man who cleaned up Rome after the city's long slide into dissolution and despair. By the standards of the age, he was progressive. He was also a world-class jerk.

One day, an anonymous graffiti artist took a fairly tame pop at Sixtus's sister, archly wondering why she'd been elevated from a washerwoman to a princess. Sixtus put out the word — if the miscreant came forward of his own accord, he'd be rewarded with a wad of cash. If he were discovered by other means, he'd be executed. The guy presented himself to the Pope, who gave him the money and spared his life. Then, in order to prevent further outbreaks of comedy, Sixtus cut off his hands and bored out his tongue.

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Based on years spent as one sort of vassal or another, I think I'd have enjoyed working for Sixtus. He's the sort of boss who lets you know where you stand. Imagine the motivating vigour of thinking to yourself, "I'd better get this report out first thing, or I'll spend the rest of my life eating with my elbows."

Sadly, we live in a bland, empathic moment. People are down on the corporate jerk. Everyone wants a leader who knows what it's like and cares about your work/life balance and wants to give you shoulder rubs. They even write books about it, such as The Power of Nice and Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.

You know who was nice? Neville Chamberlain. You know who wasn't? Winston Churchill.

Jerks are unpleasant to be around, but they get things done. I don't come to work to hold hands and feel the warmth of universal justice washing over me. That's what my drum circle is for. I go to work to do my job, get paid and leave. In order to make that process as seamless as possible, you need effective ruthlessness at the top. Research conducted by highly successful academic jerks proves it.

Nice people are pleasant, it's true. They make wonderful friends and funeral directors. But once in charge, most of them set to dithering, paralyzed by the fear they're being mean to someone. Meanwhile, the work isn't getting done, the sub-jerks have weaselled out of things, and you're sitting there at 9 p.m. on a Friday trying to sort out the mess. Nice people create well-intentioned professional chaos, which is why they win so few wars.

Everyone thinks they'd like to work for Santa Claus: a flat corporate structure, no elf better than any other, all striving toward the common goal of making twee wooden trains, or some such.

In reality, I'm sure it's a nightmare, with 20% of the elves doing 80% of the work. Meanwhile, Santa sits by the fire fretting to Mrs. Claus about whether it's fair to fire the one elf who shows up every day reeking of booze and never hits his quota.

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I would much rather work for a Bad Santa. We don't need to be pals. He just needs to get the hell out of my way and let me make those friggin' trains.

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