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Do You Have To Be Ruthless To Be Unbelievably Successful?

Joel Brown (Founder of



Be Successful Donald Trump Richard Branson

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:

  1. 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.

Donald Trump Ruthless To Be SuccessfulBusinessmen 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.


Richard Branson smile to be successful entrepreneurThen 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.

What is your opinion on being ruthless to get to the top? Please share your views in the comment section below.

I am the the Founder of and I am so grateful you're here to be part of this awesome community. I love connecting with people who have a passion for Entrepreneurship, Self Development & Achieving Success. I started this website with the intention of educating and inspiring likeminded people to always strive for success no matter what their circumstances.I'm proud to say through my podcast and through this website we have impacted over 200 million lives in the last 10 years.



  1. Avatar


    Oct 28, 2015 at 4:38 pm

    The main concern for me would be how others would feel after doing business with me. I wouldn’t want to burn bridges that could be needed at a point in the future.
    However, the need to make tough decisions come into play and i believe it can be done graciously without making enemies.
    People can be ruthless and when it comes to a point where push comes to shove ; its important to hold your ground and see that a fair deal is made. i would pick the Branson Style anyday

  2. Avatar


    Feb 18, 2015 at 3:20 pm

    I Once had a competitor who initially appoached me as an ally but later u turned, renaged on our agreement and tried to steal my customers, But I did not get angry or try to retalliate, My business was built on trust and customer loyalty and I was confident I could just keep serving my customers the way I always had and they would stick with me, He closed a couple of months later, My business is still thriving and that was 10 years ago. Branson style honesty and customer service is the way forward for many business sectors. + the money you m,ake you can take home with your head held high!!

  3. Avatar


    Aug 25, 2014 at 7:09 am

    It really comes down to whether, metaphorically, you would break someone’s arm to make money. Or have someone do it for you. I have no doubt that greed is the worst sin one can commit.

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    Jul 2, 2014 at 1:16 am

    I think being ruthless means that you don’t care about the other people not that you want to hurt them.

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    Everyday Power

    Apr 28, 2014 at 9:20 am

    I don’t believe you have to be a jerk to be tremendously successful. However, I do believe that you have to be focused, determined and have conviction. At times, that can be taken as being a jerk; but it’s very different than intentionally trying to harm someone emotionally, physically or financially.

  6. Avatar


    Apr 25, 2014 at 12:44 pm

    it also depends with ones temperaments you wont just do things simply because it calls for it or rather because someone had his/her way thorough such means, the inner being dictates a lot wit respect to whats outside

  7. Avatar

    Naomi@business start ups

    Mar 31, 2014 at 12:10 pm

    Hi Joel,

    I am a bit of both ‘Trump’ and ‘Branson’. I think you need to know when to allow which personality trait over rule the other during different situations.

    But personally the ‘Trump’ way is so common. ‘Branson’ illustrates a new type of business man which more people can relate and respect.

    A lot people think if they can’t become a ruthless, bridge burning, step over anyone kind of business person then you won’t be a success.

    Branson proves different

    Thanks Naomi

  8. Avatar

    Thomas K.

    Mar 25, 2014 at 8:21 pm

    My boss can sometimes be one of these types of people. However, his bark is worse than his bite. I think it does take some bit of ruthlessness to obtain the best possible outcome. In my opinion, it is the art of knowing how much to push and when to not be so stringent.

  9. Avatar

    Jason White

    Mar 25, 2014 at 7:13 pm

    I’m driven, passionate, and believe I related to the “millionaires” viewpoints expressed in the survey, however feel that Branson’s philosophy of doing business resonates with me more-so than Trumps. Well I just recently accepted a position in Denver to make a career change to Commercial Real Estate. According to this article, I just might not have what it takes to make it! Here’s to hoping the good-to-great qualities prevail!!

  10. Avatar

    Troy in Las Vegas

    Mar 25, 2014 at 4:41 pm

    I was trying to think of other highly successful people and all the thoughts, well almost all, where people I would not want to hang out with because they just seem like A-Holes which, to me, goes hand in hand with being ruthless. Marc Cuban. Robert Irvine. That guy married to the Kardasian girl. Murdoch. Wynn
    There are the exceptions… Bono, Branson, Tony Robbins. These are the people we should strive be be like.

  11. Avatar

    Rafael Aziz

    Mar 25, 2014 at 4:40 pm

    Its a tough world out there, Your surrounded by others who will take from you without thinking twice. So you must be able to do the same. But never hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve it. But also that doesn’t mean not to wipe out your competition.

  12. Avatar


    Mar 25, 2014 at 3:54 pm

    A quote from my favorite movie, A Bronx Tale: “At the end of the day, nobody cares.” It is not comforting, but it’s true. When all is said and done, everybody is going to do something to help themselves out, instead of helping you, if they have the choice.

    So be ruthless. It may sound rude and uncaring but in business there are not many real friends, all that matters is money so if you are in position to better yourself or someone else, choose to better yourself because that is what the guy next to you would do.

    I don’t believe “good guys finish last”, “bad guys finish first”, or vice versa. I believe “the ruthless guy finishes first.”

  13. Avatar

    carol thornton

    Mar 25, 2014 at 10:19 am

    I am of the Branson line. Sometimes ruthlessness is required, but the way one portrays it is important. I want people to come back to me so I am going to be careful in how I use it and how often. If I can get what I want by others means, I will do that first.

  14. Avatar

    Nikola Gjakovski

    Mar 25, 2014 at 9:41 am

    Well, being ruthless can lead you somewhere. I think as soon as there is truth in the agreement (no aside mambo jumbo) there can be ruthlessness included. We are all selfish and we need to be ruthless sometimes. However, it has no clear formula of (how to be a millionaire), but to execute our vision, one way or another.

  15. Avatar


    Mar 25, 2014 at 5:05 am

    If one were to propose that being ruthless has no place in the pursuit of success and continued growth, then such belief would reciprocate a belief that the sun does not illuminate the moon. Totally fallacious. Moreover at times we have to be ruthless even with ourselves, pushing ourselves to go the extra mile to make the inches count. So being ruthless in my view is a must; nonetheless it has its place.

  16. Avatar


    Mar 24, 2014 at 9:22 am

    I personally you must walk the line carefully. Give to much you will have nothing,too soft you will be ripped apart. But too harsh there is no trust,and how long can that last?

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