Nice Guys Finish First

A friend of mine works at a small satellite office of a major law firm.  He had only been there a couple months but had been been miserable because one of the partners was an intolerable ass.

Recently, his work life suddenly improved even though his hours got dramatically worse:  the partner in question left the firm to open a new office for another major law firm.

The day the partner announced that he was leaving, he invited the associates to lunch and asked each of them if they were interested in following him.  This is not unusual.  When partners at a major law firm lateral to a new firm, particularly to open a new office, they almost always take associates with them.  For associates, the move makes sense both professionally and financially.  In addition to getting a huge bonus, they continue their career with the partners with whom they worked closely.

Yet during the luncheon, not a single associate out of half a dozen showed any interest in following the partner.  As my friend characterized it, the attitude was, “Why the hell would we want to go with you?”

The partner ended up leaving with only one other partner.  It must have been hugely embarrassing; the new firm must have expected–and the partner likely promised–associates to come with him.  Instead, the new office opened with three partners, one counsel and no associates.

The story concretely demonstrates something that I’ve come to believe the more I work:  the popular phrase “Nice guys finish last” was coined by assholes who were only delusional in thinking they were at the top.

It’s common sense, really.  If you work within an organization, with an employer that’s an entity rather than an individual, you can’t do your work alone, no matter how good you are.  Every task, every project is a team effort.  You succeed through the efforts of others who made you look good through their efforts or who picked up the slack when you let things slip.  If you’re an asshole, others aren’t eager to make you look better.

The limitations of being an ass is most pronounced when you’ve failed.  Everybody makes mistakes and need to recover from them to ultimately succeed.  Yet you need help from others to clean up after your mistakes and to repair the reputation that has become shattered.  Both are achievable only with the help of others.  If you’ve been a jerk to those around you, they won’t help pick you up after you’ve fallen.  They’re more likely to kick you while you’re down, celebrating the long-awaited moment they can have revenge.

Of course, not being an asshole is different from being nice, and people can get pretty far without being pleasant.  Indeed, it’s possible, as my friend’s story showed, to become a partner at a major law firm while being a dick.  But it won’t get you much farther.   Leadership positions require what the Japanese call Jin-bo (人望), loosely translated “personal magnetism.”  It’s essentially the power to draw people.  Without it, you may be able to become a managing partner of an office, but you can’t become a managing partner of the entire firm; that kind of a position requires support from too many people that a person without deep affection and respect from others can’t get.

People say leadership comes naturally.   I think part of that is because whether you’re pleasant or repulsive is often a matter of personality.  I know a lawyer who discovered midway through his career that people were put off by his emphasis on always winning the legal arguments, which he often did.  He realized, rather, that what was important was the feeling of collegiality, to make feel people good about working with him.  He made conscientious efforts to change the way he came off to people–being more humerous, for example–and that, he said, greatly increased his ability to attract new business and helped him become a partner.

Most people aren’t and can’t be like that.  They’re completely oblivious to the fact that they’re an asshole.   They instead blame others for the limitations of their own making.  I think it’s telling that the parting words of the partner at my friend’s office were, “This is why you guys won’t amount to anything.”  My friend’s response, predictably, was “This is precisely why we’re not following you.”

It’s of course necessary to have competence to be successful because saying sorry, even sincerely, every time you make a mistake won’t get you any farther than being an ass (more on that later).  But if you’re looking to get to the top, to be the best, to finish first, you need to gain the affection and respect of those who work with you and those who know of you.  And that requires you to be nice.


2 Responses to “Nice Guys Finish First”

  1. 1 Caitlin May 23, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    You said “the popular phrase “Nice guys finish last” was coined by assholes who were only delusional in thinking they were at the top.”

    When I’ve heard people say it, it’s usually been assholes who were only delusional in thinking they were “nice guys” using it as an excuse for their completely deserved failure.

    You’ll go far, Joey. :)

    • 2 joesas May 25, 2011 at 11:23 pm


      Wait, wait! Where you being sarcastic and infer that I’m an asshole, delusional and a failure? LOL.

      Thanks for commenting! Let this not be the last.

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