We've all seen it in the workplace: The leader gets in the face of a colleague, associate, teammate — whatever term the particular organization has embraced — and loudly chews this person out in front of others.
To some, that's just what leaders do. To others, that's something jerks do. To many, it's both.
"To be a hard-ass for the betterment of the organization and be called an a----le, that comes with the territory of being a good transformational leader," said Noel Tichy, a University of Michigan management professor who in the 1980s ran General Electric's famous Crotonville Leadership Center. "I don't know enough about the Chicago Bears, but … if it was for the benefit of the team and not for his ego, that's one thing. … Doing it for their own ego, belittling people, then that's wrong."
Whether Cutler undercut his standing as a Bears leader is for those in the sports section to weigh. In the business world, however, despite the celebrated success of many leaders whose reputations have been burnished with the A-word (or the B-word) — Steve Jobs, Martha Stewart and Jack Welch are among those that come to mind — it's vital to note there's more than one way to move people.
"You don't need to be (a jerk) to prevail and influence people," Paul Purcell, chairman and chief executive of Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird & Co., said from the company's Chicago office. "You can't power over everybody every time. Well, you can and a lot of big organizations do, but everybody feels like they've been run over, too, and that, long term, is not a good thing. How you do things is all a part of being respectful in all your dealings. Ultimately, it all comes down to human respect."
Respect can only be commanded. It cannot be demanded.
Under Purcell, Baird has an A-word avoidance policy. There is even a position charged with overseeing the company's culture and supporting and integrating its ideals through training and review. Those who put themselves ahead of the company's clients and other personnel are cut loose.
"It's all about the client, it's all about the team and that's the pecking order," Purcell said. "Take care of the client, take care of the team, and then you will get taken care of well. It is not easy to find people who will abide by those rules.
"Some people feel you motivate and engage people out of fear, and there are some who feel you motivate out of money, and the answer is neither one of them works 100 percent of the time. You try to sell a vision to people and you try to sell a culture and then you try to behave accordingly. For us it means we need to be really good at what we do, but we need to be respectful in all our dealings — with clients, internal people, everybody."
One of Purcell's fans is Bob Sutton, a Stanford University professor and author of "The No (A-word) Rule" and "Good Boss, Bad Boss." What impresses him about Baird is the way it is able to have tough, honest discussions in a respectful way.
"Being tough and making other people feel bad are different things," Sutton said. "Sometimes it's in the nature of being tough that you're going to make someone unhappy, but it shouldn't be the object. It should be the side effect."
Purcell said Baird is proud of its reputation as a good place to work. "But if you're not effective, none of that matters," he said. "All you're doing is winding down the clock, because ultimately you're going to be out of business."
What has changed in time is not management philosophies but the celebration of the more socially awkward, sometimes bullying approach, and perhaps society's sensitivity to it.
"This idea that people have gotten more abusive, more mendacious and so on, that's not the way it is, it's just the way you think it is. But we notice it more," said Geoffrey Nunberg, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley and is author of "Ascent of the A-Word." "To a certain extent, they're more interesting characters."
Great leaders, transformational leaders, do have to be willing to be unpopular. That doesn't always mean they are jerks.
"This is more of a tough-love thing, that I'm willing to do tough things that are unpopular, but I have a set of values and a vision of where we're going and I'm doing it for the good of the organization," said Tichy, head of Michigan's Global Leadership Program. "Look, I'll bet you Vince Lombardi was (a jerk) for some of his players. So it's getting that concept. And then there are true (jerks). … Real (jerks) ought to be fired."
Little surprise those competing for the National Football League Super Bowl trophy named after Lombardi, the famously exacting Green Bay coach, might seek to emulate him at times — some more effectively than others.
"I probably shouldn't have bumped him, I'll go with that," the Bears' Cutler said on WMVP-AM 1000 of his run-in last week with Webb. "As far as me yelling at him and trying to get him going in the game, I don't regret that. … I can't get involved in every single person's opinion of my play and my character and my leadership skills."
Winning isn't everything. Losing, on the other hand …
"If you (act like a jerk) you've got to be really competent," Sutton said. "If you consistently leave people feeling demeaned and de-energized, that's the point where enemies are lying in wait."