I had a discussion a couple of weeks ago with a group of friends, where the question of “Do you have to be ruthless to be successful?” was raised.
Just before writing this article I personally believed that you don’t have to be ruthless at all, but you may have to step over or around some people along the way to get to your end goal. It just depends on what you do in the process to get there. I also thought about it a little deeper and began to think, well, what does it really mean to be ruthless? And do successful people who have faced the battles and adversities in the business world see this definition in a different light?
Let’s check it out…..
The definition of Ruthless is:
- Having or showing no pity or compassion for others.
Some synonyms of ruthless are “cold-hearted”, “merciless”, “pitiless” or “manipulator”. Do successful people look at manipulation differently to those who are unsuccessful?
In a survey run by “Business Brilliant” author Lewis Schiff, 9 out of 10 self-made millionaires agreed that “it’s important in negotiations to exploit the weaknesses in others.” Only 1 in 4 middle-class people took the same view.
What about being taken advantage of?
1 in 3 middle-class people agreed that “in negotiations, I expect people to try and take advantage of me.” 2 out of 3 self-made millionaires, on the other hand, expect others to try taking advantage.
This extends to their behavior, too. Half of the middle-class people in one survey agreed that “when making business decisions, it’s important to consider how the other side will view me.” On the other hand, only 2 in 10 self-made millionaires agreed with the same proposition.
Now, here’s the interesting thing. This same survey also broke down respondents by how rich they were. After all, there’s a difference multimillionaires and simple millionaires in their bank accounts — and it also looks like there’s a difference in their thinking.
97 percent of self-made multimillionaires believe that “in business dealings, it’s not my responsibility to ‘look out’ for the other person’s interest.” On the other hand, only 85 percent of self-made millionaires agree… and among the middle class? A mere 25 percent.
Now, we could go on and on with this. Questions about Machiavellianism, gaining advantages over others, and the like all produced similar results. This does not, however, mean that successful people are actively out to screw others. They understand better than anyone that reciprocation and sticking to their word is key to building trust and long-term relationships — the most profitable kind, after all.
Still, it is possible to be successful without being ruthless. After all, even among multimillionaires, there were a few percent (very few) who did not agree with ruthlessness in business dealings. Looking at some well-known examples, we can see there’s clearly a range of personalities at work. The degree to which ruthlessness is necessary for success varies.
Businessmen like Donald Trump occupy one side of the scale. They make careers — and images — out of their ruthlessness. “Be brutal,” Trump has said:
“Be tough, and just go get them.”
Why is this? For one thing, real estate is a notoriously ruthless business. There is a finite supply of valuable land. Indeed, the limited supply of land is what allows men like Trump to make their millions. With the “you must lose for me to win” aspect so clearly visible, it’s no surprise that a Trump attitude rises to the top.
Then we have the Richard Branson’s of the world. In a column for Entrepreneur Magazine titled “Nice Guys Can Finish First,” Branson explains he finds it counterproductive to be ruthless. When people feel they’ve done well dealing with you, they tend to come back, and give you more business later.
Sure, some people have observed that even Branson has a ruthless streak, which he chalks up to having to make “tough calls.” But just as important is a look at what Branson does — his Virgin empire is highly innovative, and customer service- and image-oriented. Branson makes his money by creating a positive atmosphere where creativity thrives… a far cry from Trump’s land deals.
But…. there is one thing to keep in mind..
Even when looking at ‘nice guys‘ like Branson. While Branson is less aggressive at the negotiating table, he’s still competitive, and highly determined. Where he ‘looks out’ for the other person’s interest, he’s still doing it to help himself. He wants the other person to come back and do business again in the future.
Therefore, rather than saying you have to be ruthless to be successful, it might be more accurate to say you have to be energetic and extremely determined. Unless you’re in real estate, it seems like the ruthlessness (which is indeed a very common component of success) isn’t about aggression or ‘screwing over’ the other guy. Rather, it’s a by-product of going after your business goals with single-minded determination.
People who are ruthless for the sake of being ruthless tend to leave behind a trail of burned bridges, and sometimes end up in court (or even in prison). Both Trump and Branson have survived dozens, probably hundreds of lawsuits against them.
On the other hand, there are plenty of successful people who make the “tough calls” without necessarily hurting others. That’s what Netflix Chief Talent Officer Patty McCord did when she fired a third of the company’s 120 employees so the company could keep going — yet she still hears from many of them, and considers them good friends.