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Brilliant Jerks – A curse or a blessing? - Guest Blog

I love the phrase “brilliant jerks” which first came into prominence as part of the much publicised quote from the Netflix culture slideshow, more recently replaced by the Netflix culture update. It brings two seemingly opposite words into focus in the same way that telling somebody that they are “brilliantly useless” might do and that may explain why it gets so much focus.

On a dream team, there are no “brilliant jerks” … The cost to teamwork is just too high. Our view is that brilliant people are also capable of decent human interactions, and we insist upon that. - Netflix Culture Slides.

Of course there are two sides to every coin. Some people have debated that such “brilliant jerks” should be nurtured because they are necessary to allow an organisation to “grow and innovate”.  Yet another, Freddy J. Nager,  highlighted that such an absolute get-rid-of-them strategy would backfire because you lose folks like Steve Jobs from your midst!

The key, of course, lies in properly defining what we mean by a “brilliant jerk”. I do not consider it to refer to such folks as Freddy Nager points out in his article:

“If a brilliant jerk is someone who simply questions the answers and rejects the status quo, by all means, he should not only be kept, he should be rewarded.” Freddy J. Nager

We clearly need such people to ask questions, challenge the status quo, inject passion and avoid groupthink. That is but one aspect of brilliance. The critical part of the definition lies in the second word: JERK! Simply put, it does not just mean that you are not a nice person. It means that you treat other people badly – sometimes to the extreme. You can think of it as making an ape of yourself!

Being brilliant is not a license to become a jerk

I was reminded of some “brilliant jerks” I have met over the years when I referred to the importance of being “FRIENDLY and FAIR” in my F-Words post. Brilliance does not give license for anybody to become a jerk anymore than being a disengaged or “non-brilliant!” employee does. Cultures that tolerate jerk-like behaviour – regardless of brilliance – without addressing it appropriately in a FAIR manner lose in the long run.

“HOW we do WHAT we do matters HUGELY.” Kevin Breen, CyberActive Limited.

In my CyberActive Limited work, I use a pretty basic notion to get across the need for individuals, and the broader culture, to be both “FRIENDLY and FAIR”. Yes, it may seem like simple common sense but sometimes common sense is not so common!

Focus on WHAT you do and HOW you do it regardless of whether you are a “brilliant jerk” or not. You will feel much better for being “FRIENDLY and FAIR” and this does not mean that you must sacrifice brilliant results. FAIRNESS implies being direct and transparent in terms of addressing performance issues….. but in a FRIENDLY manner that preserves “decent human interactions”. This enables the intact team to fail or flow forward together to address the next opportunity that lies ahead. 

Leave the jerk at the door and cast a positive shadow

Is there a “brilliant jerk” lurking inside any of you? Perhaps now is the time to leave the jerk [ HOW you do it ] at the front door as you enter to do brilliant [ WHAT you do] work.

“An institution is the lengthened shadow of our collective behaviour.” Adapted from Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Such niceness, rather than jerkiness, does not mean weakness when you operate from a “FRIENDLY and FAIR” stance. Try creating such a shadow as your legacy. It’s not asking too much, is it?


About the Author

Kevin Breen facilitates the Digital Transformation workshops at the Irish Computer Society which equips participants to critically assess where & how you should spend your time to  deliver better business results. 

With over three decades of experience in a number of disparate global roles. He is passionate about driving breakthrough business results through a proactive and positive fusion of people, business and technology/digital acumen.  

Kevin is Founder/Principal Consultant with CyberActive Limited and is a recognized Fellow and CIO Advisory Board member of the Irish Computer Society. He is a member of the Enterprise Mobility Exchange Advisory Board [International Quality & Productivity Centre - IQPC Exchange] and an inaugural Advisory Board member of Corrata, an Irish Tech startup.

Kevin is also a Steering Committee member of the Irish National Coalition for Digital Skills/Jobs, an EU Commission sponsored initiative EU DSJC. Until 2016, he served as the Global Service Owner for Mobile Computing within Intel IT with responsibility for all aspects of smartphone/ tablet/ wearable enterprise deployments to ~100000 worldwide employees. This included areas ranging from usability, security, TCO through to delivering productivity and business value. In 2015, this brief was extended to include IOT Gateway management.  Within Intel, Kevin also managed all IT aspects of several Semi-Conductor FAB startup/ ramp and sustaining operations and led the initial global IT Service Management journey.

Previously, Kevin has managed IT organisations at both an Ireland and regional/global level across large MNCs with responsibility for new capability introduction and delivery of world class business service management. Kevin holds 1st Class Masters Degrees in both Business Administration [MBA] and Computer Science [M.Sc].

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