May 30, 2014

Dean Baquet said it was “nuts” to elegize “‘the city editor who changed my life because he was really nasty to me for six months and it made me a better person.'” I noted earlier today that John Robinson had recently tweeted some wisdom about the peculiar devotion some journalists have for tough editors, but I was curious what Jill Geisler, who directs Poynter’s management and leadership training programs, thought about J. Jonah Jameson types.

Geisler recently wrote about what a good management style looks like, and talked about the “bad old days” when “bosses could be behave like tyrants” as long as their team “cranked out some good work.”

She didn’t dwell on those days in the piece, though, so I put it to her: Why do so many journalists think fondly of jerks? Here’s what she wrote back:

The fond remembrances are very likely the result of several things:

1. It’s all seen through the rear view mirror. Those who are fondly recalling their super-tough, idiosyncratic bosses are proud of their survival, just like those who make it through fraternity or sorority hazing. They put greater emphasis on the positive outcome and tell war stories about the hardship. There’s a “coolness” factor to telling those “I was one of Mr. or Ms. X’s crew — what a wild ride that was. If you made it there, you know you had what it takes.”
2. The bosses weren’t ALL bad. They weren’t fundamentally evil. In fact, there WAS a pony under all that poop. The pony was smart and taught them some skills that made them better. That’s why the managers got “idiosyncrasy credits” for the other boorish (but not dishonest) behaviors.
3. The bosses made some personal connection with the employee in spite of everything else. When the meanest SOB in the valley tells you, “Kid, if you get your head out of your butt you might actually make it in this business,” some kids feel special — and they cling to that. (“He/She yells at everybody but actually kind of likes me.”)

Having said all that, there’s a reason Bob Sutton wrote “The No Asshole Rule” and why it was such a hit. Let him explain.

And I know of no one who tells me that what they’d like in an ideal boss is a large measure of screaming, sarcasm, immaturity, unpredictability, moodiness, substance abuse, cronyism or bad hygiene.

Honestly, I think it’s so patently obvious that people deserve better, that I find those who put a glow on their old war stories to be a bit tiresome. It’s over. Times have changed. Move on.

In case you hadn’t heard the pony/poop metaphor before, here’s a good explainer of it.

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Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at and managing editor of Washington City…
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