abrasive personality

Topics: Boss, Hierarchy, Harvard University Pages: 18 (5045 words) Published: April 29, 2014
No. 78307
By Harry Levinson
The Abrasive Personality
The corporate president stared out the window of
his skyscraper office. His forehead was furrowed in
anger and puzzlement. His fingers drummed the
arm of his chair with a speed that signified intense
frustration. The other executives in the room
waited expectantly. Each had said his piece. Each
had come to his and her own conclusion about the
problem.
Darrel Sandstrom, vice president of one of the corporation’s major divisions, was the problem.
Sandstrom was one of those rare young men who
had rocketed to the division vice presidency at an
age when most of his peers were still in lower-middle
management. “He is sharp,” his peers said, “but
watch out for his afterburn. You’ll get singed as he
goes by.” And that, in a phrase, was the problem.
There was no question that Sandstrom was well
on his way to the top. Others were already vying for
a handhold on his coattails. He had a reputation for
being a self-starter. Give him a tough problem, like a
failing division, and he would turn it around almost
before anyone knew what had happened. He was an
executive who could quickly take charge, unerringly
get to the heart of a problem, lay out the steps for
overcoming it, bulldoze his way through corporate
red tape, and reorganize to get the job done. All that
was well and good. Unfortunately, that was not all
there was to it.
In staff discussions and meetings with his peers
Sandstrom would ask pointed questions and make
incisive comments. However, he would also brush
his peers’ superfluous words aside with little tact,
making them fearful to offer their thoughts in his
presence. Often he would get his way in meetings
because of the persuasiveness of his arguments and
his commanding presentations, but just as often
those who were responsible for following up the
conclusions of a meeting would not do so.
In meetings with his superiors, his questions were
appropriate, his conclusions correct, and his insights
important assets in examining problems. But he
would antagonize his superiors by showing little
patience with points and questions that to him
seemed irrelevant or elementary. Unwilling to compromise,
Sandstrom was an intellectual bully with
little regard for those of his colleagues who could
not keep up with him.
There were complaints from subordinates too.
Some resented his controlling manner. Fearing his
wrath, they spoke up at meetings only when they
knew it to be safe. They knew he would not accept
mediocrity and so they strived to attain the perfection
he demanded of them. When he said they had
done a good job, they knew they had earned his com-
Copyright © 1978 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. The Abrasive Personality
Harry Levinson
Mr. Levinson is very well-known to HBR readers. This is his fourteenth article in HBR, the most recent “Appraisal of What
Performance,” which appeared in the July–August 1976 issue. Mr. Levinson is the author of many books on what motivates executives including The Exceptional Executive (Harvard University
Press, 1968) and The Great Jackass Fallacy (Harvard University Press, 1973), and is president of the Levinson Institute. He is also a lecturer at The Harvard University Medical School.
May–June 1978
pliments, though many felt he did not really mean
what he said.
His meetings were not noted for their liveliness,
in fact he did not have much of a sense of humor. On
the golf course and tennis courts he was equally
humorless and competitive. Playing as intensely as
he worked, he did not know what a game was.
And now here he was. The division presidency was
open and the corporate president was in a dilemma.
To promote Sandstrom was to perpetuate in a more
responsible position what seemed to many a combination
of Moshe Dayan, General George Patton, and
Admiral Hyman Rickover. Sandstrom would produce;
no question about that. But at what...
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