Topic: Professions & Institutions

Nice Guys Can Finish First

It was notorious baseball manager, player and Hollywood playboy Leo Durocher who got himself into Bartlett’s with the line, “Nice guys finish last.” The statement is a four word challenge to ethics advocates, as it holds that being nice…civil, caring, considerate, fair, compassionate, kind…is antithetical to achieving success in this dog-eat-dog world we live in. Certainly Durocher’s observation has some validity: if we somehow have forgotten the abysmal conduct displayed by our political candidates last November, all we need to do is watch the weekly progress of Donald Trump’s candidates for well-paid lackeydom on TV’s “The Apprentice” as they blame, slander and denigrate each other before millions. Yet suddenly, some Democrat Senators are insisting that being one mean and abusive SOB should disqualify President Bush’s nomination for Ambassador to the U.N. for that post, provoking Republicans to scoff that this is a patently phony and hypocritical standard. The real question should be, they say, whether John Bolton is effective at what he does.

Well, opinions differ on that too, but never mind. Should niceness be an issue in assessing job worthiness? Does the fact that Bolton may habitually verbally abuse subordinates, hurt feelings and intimidate co-workers matter if he is, as his supporters say, brilliant and successful? If it doesn’t, if the virtues that make up niceness really are for losers, then why are we concerned about ethics? Maybe this site should be the “Kick-Ass Scoreboard.”

Clearly, niceness is more essential in some jobs than others, and one can argue that Bolton is seeking one of them. The art of diplomacy would seem to require a little more, shall we say, self-control than Bolton seems to have in his make-up; this is, after all, a profession of persuasion, negotiation and patience. But diplomats are not necessarily nice; the nature of the profession brings to mind Harry Truman’s advice that in politics “always be sincere, whether you mean it or not.”

But the “niceness” question is really no different than the ridiculous “Does character matter?” debate that dominated both Clinton presidential campaigns. Of course character matters; character cannot be partitioned from leadership, because leadership requires trust, honor, honesty, courage, accountability…in fact, all six “pillars of character” and all the related virtues they include. Niceness is just one segment of the entire character package, but it is a revealing one. A person who abuses subordinates and others lacks the basic virtue of respect, and a lack of respect can lead to reckless and needlessly harmful behavior. A person who seeks to accomplish job objectives without concern for the people and interests that may be devastated in the process is especially susceptible to the siren song of “the ends justify the means,” which is a dangerous mindset for a diplomat, or anyone. A person who lacks patience will make bad decisions in the heat of the moment; a person whom colleagues perceive as single-minded and disdainful of the needs of anyone other than himself will not earn their trust. The opposite of niceness is meanness, and mean people are not great candidates for ethical conduct.

It is true that many, many successful business leaders, politicians, scientists, artists, generals and professionals are not always “nice.” When niceness interferes with necessary decisions required by a job, it can even be an impediment: Earl Weaver, a better baseball manager than Leo Durocher and a nicer man, admitted that he quit managing when he found he couldn’t stand to look in one of his player’s faces and tell him that his career was over, that he was no longer good enough to play the sport he loved in the Major Leagues. Niceness can make some jobs harder, and niceness alone, without other abilities and strengths, won’t be sufficient for any job more challenging than Julie’s on “The Love Boat.” But niceness indicates a deep wellspring of ethical habits and beliefs, and the lack of it is legitimate cause for concern for anybody evaluating an individual for job advancement.

The fact that John Bolton doesn’t seem to be nice shouldn’t disqualify him from the job of Ambassador to the United Nations, but it’s not inappropriate to have it factor into the thinking of those who are being asked to confirm him. Some people with a niceness deficit have great talent and achieve great things, but lots of nice people succeed as well. The nice winners are out there, and they are worth waiting for.


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