Lead Without Being A Jerk

Recently, I asked for questions and ideas for blog posts and received a great response from a lot of people.

Here is one of the questions that came through:

My fear is that I will become a person that is a wealth of knowledge, but people will see as a jerk. How do you teach, and instruct without being a jerk, or coming across as condescending?

Wow! That is an excellent question and a very self-aware approach. I am sure this comes from experience with others, but it is also an awareness of self tendency that is very good.

I am going to deal with this as a teaching and as a leadership issue in this post.

I bring up the self-aware aspect of the question because that is a big part of the answer to the question.


There are few things worse in leadership than a leader who is not self-aware.

We all have known people who were not aware of self. It makes everyone else very uncomfortable. There is definitely no respect for someone in that space.

When it is the leader who is not aware, it creates a very toxic culture over time. It creates tension and lack of accountability. The culture becomes one of intentional ignorance through ignoring the real issues. Leaders who are not self-aware can come off as hypocritical and even deceitful. They are often thought of as jerks or worse.

Self-awareness is critical for a leader. This is fostered through a variety of sources and resources. Some are naturally better at this than others, but everyone can get better at it through the following checkpoints:

  • Self-reflection – takes time and intentional energy
  • Profiling – through tests and assessments; i.e. Enneagram, Strengthsfinders, DISC, Myers-Briggs, and so on.
  • Outside observation – employing a coach, consultant, mentor, etc.
  • 360 degree reviews – not only reviewing those who report to you, but letting them review you
  • Be unoffendable – in other words listen and accept input. If someone is not trying to offend you, why be offended. If they are trying to offend, they are a jerk, and why should they have the satisfaction of offending you?
  • Seeking input regularly from those closest to you at all levels
  • Do the work to be aware of your triggers and markers for where you might be drifting.

This is one of those things that just asking the question helps us not become the jerk.

Care about those you lead

When we truly care, we will be a jerk a lot less. Yes, we can still be a jerk, but caring helps us to avoid it more.

There is always a line of personal and professional within leading and authority. The line gets blurry sometimes. As the leader, we sometimes have to do hard things that may even hurt someone we care about.

I once had to remove someone that I really cared about. I liked them. I would rather have kept them around, but the best thing for them and the organization was for them to move on. They didn’t see it that way and didn’t leave willingly. It was hard. Caring made it that much harder. Not caring would have made me the jerk that some thought I was anyway. But, being the real jerk is always worse than just being perceived as one. We can influence but not control perception. We can only control what we do and how/why we do it.

By choosing to truly care for people and want what is best for them, we are in position to provide what they need and less likely to be a jerk while doing so.

Build influence not authority.

This is probably THE key.

  • Authority is given. Influence is earned.
  • Authority comes from above. Influence comes from you.

Too many people lead or attempt to lead out of authority. Positional authority is not true leadership.

It isn’t leadership to bark orders. It isn’t leadership to demean and demoralize people to keep them in line.

Leading solely from authority is a sign of an insecure and afraid leader. Secure leaders build influence and actually celebrate the wins of others. The insecure leader has the need to own all the credit. The secure leader is willing to let others receive the credit and will even praise them publicly for their wins.

Influence is always better than authority. True leadership is built fully on the practice of influence. If people have to obey you, you haven’t built influence. It’s when people have a real choice and follow anyway that influence exists.

Influence comes from credibility, trust, caring for, time, adding value, to name a few.

Teach Don’t Tell

When giving information and instruction, it is always better to use good teaching practices than to just lecture out info.

The posture used in teaching is also important. We have all experienced the know-it-all superior attitude from some that is so off-putting.

When a person is humble and kind and truly cares about helping others improve, then it becomes a much more pleasant experience for all involved.

This is also where caring and knowing those around you helps. People respond to teaching differently. When you can adjust the way you teach to the way a person learns it is quite impactful.

That said, it’s not often practical or possible to customize teaching to each person. In these cases we use the good practices of authenticity and clear and concise communication to disseminate information.

Like so many things in life attitude is massive. A good proper attitude postured toward the person goes a long way.

Finally, don’t try to present as the smartest person in the room. Are you saying what you are because it is needed or because it makes you look good? Are you trying to help them improve or trying to impress? Are you truly interested in their success or just what they can do for you? Are you trying to make more sales or grow a person? Do you care about them as a person or as an asset?

The answers to these questions will determine whether or not you are being a jerk or working toward influential leadership.

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