We’ve all seen them: people who are raking in seven-figure salaries (or higher…), driving luxury cars, and jetting around the world on a regular basis, all the while being complete dicks to everyone around them. These are people who have gotten to where they are by trampling others, and have “succeeded” by living a life devoid of empathy, compassion, or basic human decency.
Basically, they’ve been complete assholes.
A common trope in films and TV shows is one in which successful people are depicted as utter douchelords. They order people around, insult them, treat them like they’re one step above slug mucus, and laugh at their own cruelty. Their loyal sycophants laugh at their jokes, and follow their behavior in an attempt to ingratiate themselves to the alpha bastard, and thus gain favor. Unfortunately a lot of people try to emulate what they watch, and so this jackassery is mimicked in the real world. This is bullshit.
There are countless examples of brilliant leaders and successful people throughout history who achieved greatness without stomping all over others.
You can be an assertive, strong-willed, and charismatic success without treating other people like shit. The key is in the words you choose, and how you behave towards those around you—your co-workers, friends, and even random strangers.
Making other people feel small and powerless doesn’t make you a strong, powerful person. It makes you seem like a pathetic, petty tyrant who needs to cut people down in order to make yourself feel stronger and more important. You are no greater or lesser than anyone else on the face of the earth, so it’s vital to treat others with respect and courtesy.
If you’re immensely wealthy, either through your own efforts or because you’ve inherited a vast sum, congratulations—you can’t take that with you when you die. You can wrap yourself up in expensive clothes and buy a fleet of sports cars, but those are temporary accessories and say absolutely nothing about you as a person.
Only your behavior can do that.
If you’re titled nobility because one of your ancestors did something chivalrous a few centuries ago, behave in a manner that would make them proud of you, rather than turning your nose down on those you believe are “lesser”. They’re not.
When you show sincere respect towards other people, do you know what happens? They respect you in turn. They recognize authenticity, and value you as a sincere, wonderful person. This is the kind of behavior that inspires loyalty and dedication from others: people who love you and want to help you achieve greatness, rather than people who fear you and do what you want just so you won’t make them suffer.
If you’re a business owner and you’re paying your employees the bare amount necessary to keep them from starving to death, yet you’re jetting off to Dubai or Nice every other month, you’re an asshole.
One of the worst things anyone can do is to make their staff feel like they’re easily replaceable, rather than valued. How could anyone put sincere enthusiasm into their work when they know that you don’t appreciate their skills or experience, and feel like you could replace them with a random drone at any moment? What incentive does anyone have to pour their hearts into their work when they know that you’ll drop them in favor of an unpaid intern if they so much as irk you?
It has been said that some of the most successful and well-respected business people (looking at you here, Richard Branson!) adhere to a principle known as the Three Gs: graciousness, gratitude, and generosity.
You can show graciousness by being compassionate and human towards the people you work with. Talk to them. Ask what’s going on in their lives. Employees whose work habits appear to be slipping in your eyes may be dealing with really horrible health or family problems, and would undoubtedly appreciate your understanding and support, rather than your wrath.
Gratitude can be shown by letting people know how much you value them; that they are important as individuals as well as for being contributors to your team. Recognize when people go above and beyond expectations to deliver high-caliber work, rather than just putting in the minimum effort needed.
As for generosity… that isn’t limited to doling out holiday bonuses or Amazon gift cards to employees once in a while. Get your team involved in charity events, and work hard alongside them for a good cause. Is your café waitress obviously having a horrible day? Leave her a big tip and a note to remind her that there’s some good in the world, and things can and will get better.
Lying to someone is a perfect way to ensure that they lose respect for you. We’re not talking about a little lie, such as telling someone that a major work gaffe wasn’t all that bad, but rather a boldfaced lie that’s meant to keep them in the dark whilst you’re doing something shady.
Respect has to be earned, and few things can completely obliterate someone’s respect for you as when you lie to them. Trust and faith are extremely difficult to cultivate, and just about impossible to rebuild once broken.
Are you familiar with the quote: “The worst truth is better than the best lie”? It’s a good one to keep in mind. The truth about a situation may be quite awful, and being honest about it might be excruciating, but it is so much better to be honest about a difficult topic than to lie about it and hope it goes away.
When in doubt, put yourself in the other person’s shoes: would you rather be lied to, or told the truth, even if it’s difficult?
After reading all of this, you might be sitting there and wondering how it is that you might benefit from not being a complete asshole, considering how well douchebaggery seems to work for the average successful person.
Well, in addition to having a coterie of wonderful, authentic people who sincerely care about you and want you to succeed in life, consider this: we don’t just come into this world terrified and alone—we leave it the same way. We can’t take wealth or power or minions along with us, but if we’re very, very lucky, our last days may be spent in the company of those whose care and respect we’ve earned, and we can look back on our lives with a bit of pride, knowing that we did some good during our time here.
People who achieve greatness aren’t just recognized for what they’ve accomplished, but how they did so. Did they build up and encourage those around them? Or crush them beneath their boots in order to climb ever higher?
Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to determine what kind of person they face when they look in the mirror, and whether they can be proud of who they are, and how they got there.
Catherine Winter is a writer, art director, and herbalist-in-training based in Quebec's Outaouais. She has been known to subsist on coffee and soup for days at a time, and when she isn't writing or tending her garden, she can be found wrestling with various knitting projects and befriending local wildlife.