Nice Guys Finish Last

“Nice guys finish last.”&sup1
–Leo “the Lip” Durocher, baseball player, manager, and Hall of Famer

Sometimes you have to be a bastard.

Most of us like to believe that virtue is its own reward, that the good guys will beat the bad guys, and that things will turn out fine in the end. Guess what? We’re wrong.

That may work for the Disney Channel, but it doesn’t work for business. Business can be dirty work. Sportsmanship doesn’t count. If your opponent trips, don’t help him up — kick him while he’s down. J.D. Rockefeller knew it, Henry Ford practiced it, and Bill Gates wrote about it in his email (OK, maybe that wasn’t such a good idea!).

Sometimes you have to be a bastard, even in the supposedly more genteel world of sports. Michael Jordan was the greatest basketball player of all time, due largely to the fact that he was one of the meanest basketball players of all time. Former Bull Scott Burrell was once asked why he was running hours of drills. “Because Michael said that he’d beat me up if I didn’t.” When asked why he, a grown, 218-pound elite athlete, feared such tired braggadocio, he replied, “because he’s Michael Jordan, and I believed him.”

Being a bastard to your competitors is fairly intuitive. What made Jordan great was his willingness to terrorize his own teammates — when the occasion called for it.

I’m not recommending the yelling-and-screaming Bobby Knight approach to management. What I am recommending is having the guts to make unpopular decisions and force them through.

It’s a given that your subordinates and colleagues (even your bosses) aren’t always going to agree with what you do. If they did, you could simply replace them with robots. When a decision has been made, they must swallow their dissent and comply. And if they don’t, you have to punish them or even fire them.

Let’s say that you’re preparing to launch a new product. It’s Friday afternoon, and you’ve planned to launch on Monday morning. Suddenly, you discover that the Web site hasn’t been changed to reflect the product launch. It’ll take hours to draft and make the updates. Do you:

  1. Postpone the launch until Tuesday
  2. Yell at the person responsible for the gaffe and tell him he’s not leaving until it’s fixed
  3. Arrange for all the necessary parties — including yourself — to come in to work over the weekend to finish the job

If you picked A, you should start polishing your “Fifth Place” medal. The entire company has planned on a Monday launch. Marketing better not let the other divisions down.

If you picked B, congratulations on being named the head basketball coach at Texas Tech. Yes, you may get the work done, but do you think it’ll be of the highest quality? How about the next time you need it done?

If you picked C, you understand that the person you have to be toughest on is yourself. Jordan spends more time practicing and working on his game than anyone, including the terrorized Burrell. So does Tiger Woods. So does Bill Gates, who often writes emails to his staff at 3 a.m.

It’s easy to be a nice guy. Spending money is easy. Delaying product launches is easy. Going out of business is easy, too.

&sup1 Durocher’s famous aphorism is argued to be a misquote. In 1946, a reporter asked Durocher about the Brooklyn Dodgers’s World Series chances. The manager’s answer was purportedly distilled down to the now-famous “Nice guys finish last.” (I’m sure, however, that Durocher would have agreed with his famous misquote.)

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