10 Signs You’re Just a Jerk…Not A Leader

So you lead. You’re in charge…at least you’re in charge of something or hope to be one day.

But how do you know you’re leading effectively…and that you’re not, well, a jerk?

I mean we’ve all been around leaders who are extremely difficult to be around.

Think about how badly leaders are often viewed.

Over the years, boss has even become a bad word. If you’re a pushy kid, you get labeled as bossy and people stay away. Hollywood simply needs to put the word “horrible” in front of the word “bosses” in a movie title and everyone smiles because they can relate. Who hasn’t had a horrible boss?

And yet, sometimes there’s a fine line between being an effective leader and being a jerk. The strength required to be a leader can sometimes push you up against the hard edges of your personality.

When you reach that point you fail. You not only destroy others, you ultimately destroy yourself.

Here are ten signs you’re actually being a jerk, not a leader.


1. You’ve made the organization all about you

Hey, there’s no doubt your leadership gift probably brings something to the organization or church in which you serve—maybe even a lot.

Leaders, after all, make things happen.

If you want to be a jerk, make the organization about you.

Make sure you’re front and center all the time. Think about how grateful people should be to have you.

Be incredulous at why more people don’t thank you for your leadership. Imagine that you should be paid more.

Just think of yourself as undervalued and indispensable. Jerks, after all, think it’s all about them.

2. You think that people work for  you

If you’re a jerk and not a true leader, you’ll believe people work for you. 

Contrast that with what the best bosses do. The best bosses think of themselves as working for the people around them.

They prefer to serve rather than be served.

If you keep thinking people work for you, few people will want to work for you.

3. You never say thank you

Jerk leaders rarely say thank you. After all, why would you say thank you when people are just doing their jobs?

Jerk leaders rarely take the time to tap someone on the shoulder and tell them they noticed the difference that team member made today.

And why thank the employee who worked late to get the project done? After all, shouldn’t they just be grateful to get a paycheck?

Great bosses often take the time to hand-write a thank you note.

They high five people.

They look team members in the eye and tell them how much they appreciate them.

They put their arm around people and say thanks.

Great leaders realize nobody has to work for them. Which is why people do.

4. You’re demanding

One sure way to be a jerk is to demand things of people.

It’s one thing to have high standards (great leaders have high standards), but to remain a jerk, make sure you always communicate those standards in a way that demeans people.

Always focus on what you want from people. Never think about what you want for people.

5. You keep the perks of leadership to yourself

Leadership does have perks. Maybe you know some people other folks would love to connect with.

Maybe you get the nicer office or have a slightly bigger budget than others. Or people send you gift cards once in a while because you’re the boss man. Or you have a nice parking space (which you shouldn’t by the way… here’s why).

To stay a jerk, just make sure you never share anything with anyone. Keep it all to yourself. Whatever you do, don’t be generous.

6. You keep yourself front and center

If you’re a jerk leader, you think you’re so valuable to the organization (see point 1) that you do whatever it takes to be at the center of everything at all times.

You don’t develop young talent. You’re too insecure to share your platform with others. You never push other people into the spotlight. (Insecurity causes a lot of leadership problems by the way. Here are 5.)

You’re never going to retire anyway, or even if you do, it doesn’t really matter if the organization crumbles when you go, does it?

Besides, no one else on your team has dreams, gifts or hopes. Why would you pay attention to that?

Think about it: Great leaders don’t build platforms; they build people.

7. You take the credit and assign the blame

If you’re a jerk leader, there are two surefire ways to anger your team.

First, take all of the credit for anything good that happens in your organization.

Make sure you mention how it was your idea and whatever you do, don’t mention your team or how hard they worked on the project.

Second, when things go off the rails, wash your hands of it. Look surprised and then appear concerned.

Blame something else.

Blame someone else.

Blame anything else.

You weren’t responsible anyway. Except for all of the good things, of course.

8. You never have your team’s back

Is there really any value in public loyalty? Didn’t think so.

If you want to alienate your team, speak poorly of them when they’re not in the room.

For example, when you disagree with a decision a team member made, make sure you tell anyone who will listen how much you disagreed with it.

And when someone complains to you about what a team member did, make sure you pull them aside and in hushed tones tell them how disappointed you were with their decision too, and that you don’t understand why they would do that.

For bonus points, never privately speak to the person with whom you disagree. Just smile when you see them.

Great leaders don’t always agree, but they always disagree privately behind closed doors and they support you publicly, no matter what. That builds a team.

As Andy Stanley says, great leaders realize that public loyalty buys you private leverage.

9. You make all the decisions

One sure sign of a jerk leader is that you infuriate other leaders on your team by personally making as many decisions as possible.

You never let them exercise their leadership gifts or become thinkers in their own right.

And when they do make decisions on their own, you meddle frequently.

You even pull out your pocket veto regularly. Especially if you’re acting on partial information and don’t have the whole story.

10. You act like a martyr

When your team is angry with you (as they should be), one sure sign you’ve moved to the jerk column is that you pull out the martyr card.

Nobody has it as hard as you do. True?

Nobody is as misunderstood.

I mean, who puts in as many hours for a thankless job? And who really understands you?

Nobody. Of course.

To keep jerk status, make sure you tell everyone how hard you work, how lonely leadership is and how you haven’t taken a vacation in X years.

Great leaders realize leadership has a cost, but they don’t expect others to share it. This is exactly why many people are willing to share the cost with a great leader.

The Jerk Inside Me

How do I know jerk leadership so well?

Because I have a jerk inside of me I need to suppress every day. My guess is you might too.

Fortunately, Jesus introduces a completely different paradigm for leadership.

If you want to be a Christ-like leader, just do the opposite of these ten things. You’ll be well on your way.

And Christ promises to help you.

If you’re like me, it takes supernatural strength to lead in a Christ-like manner. But there’s no better way to lead a team (or your family).

What Do You Think?

What other characteristics of jerk leaders have you seen?

How is this battle at work in your life?

Scroll down and leave a comment!

10 Signs You’re Just a Jerk…Not A Leader


  1. Kabugo E. Hope on October 24, 2018 at 7:30 am

    Wonderful job my brother, may the Lord we serve see you through

  2. Lori Harris on October 23, 2018 at 2:03 pm

    I would love some comments on working in non profit volunteer situations where these very things happen a lot! Because we are volunteers, the jerk can run people off regularly and because people fear his wrath, they keep quiet instead of standing up for principles and innocent people not being mistreated. It is a catch-22 situation when you are all in a ministry volunteer situation, living in community together. How can we really effectively move forward?

    • Dennis on October 23, 2018 at 3:55 pm

      Lori, do you work in the same ministry/volunteer organization that I do? You nailed some of the exact frustrations I have had! There are only 5 paid staff and probably a hundred total regular volunteers in this ministry that primarily distributes donated and government program food to qualified members of the community. There are several “lead” volunteers who have basically floated to their positions via longevity with the organization. Most are very “nice” folks, but don’t have a clue how to lead people. One is a retired gentleman ( most of us ARE retired) who has a bad case of “Napoleon syndrome.” He is of small stature, but has a BIG personality that is narcissistic and abrasive.
      For me, the best way to deal with “Napoleon” AND the other irritants that are inherent in our operation (poor communication, lack of standard procedures, lack of vision, little to no ongoing training, etc.) is to 1) remember that I am there to serve our clients, NOT the staff or other volunteers, 2) pray for the organization and each of the people associated with it, 3) be grateful for the resources (food and hygiene products) we are able to share due to the generosity of the people in our community, and 4) remind myself it’s not about me.
      Please continue to serve, even if you need to find a different venue. Just as in the world of paid work, non-profits and volunteer organizations aren’t perfect. In fact due to their very nature they may have even more problems and issues (including high turnover) but overall they DO good and they NEED us (volunteers) to do it!

      • Lori Harris on October 23, 2018 at 5:03 pm

        Dennis, those are all great reminders ! It is always good to know that you have been “called and chosen” for this work and it really isn’t about you. Those who can’t take the abuse tend to leave sooner and that is truly sad but the “napoleons” linger on! We just have to pray them out!
        Blessings for your insight.

  3. Jonathan Lowery on October 23, 2018 at 10:43 am

    Thank you for this list. I can see areas where I need to work as a result of reading this. I could never accomplish by myself what I can accomplish with others around me. One is too small a number for success (John Maxwell). I need to read this list often and help to keep my jerk leadership traits at bay. I’m sure I won’t be perfect over night, but I have already written some Thank You notes that were long over due today.

    Thanks for the blessing!

  4. Heather henderson on October 23, 2018 at 10:18 am

    Hey Carey- I hesitated to leave this comment here because I hope not to start any turmoil. I closed this post (which is excellent) and told myself not to comment. But then I figured you would really value the feedback, so I decided to post.

    In your section on enjoying the perks of leadership, you use the phrase “boss man.” I know it’s a colloquialism, and also, something that I so appreciate about you is that you seem to take great care to use gender inclusive language in your writing. I know you know and value many fantastic leaders and bosses who are female. I’m sure it’s just word usage in the article. But, for me, and I am admittedly sensitive to language, it was disappointing to see that phrase.

    I tremendously value your work, and you have been instrumental in my own development as a leader. I intend to start no gender discussion here, only to call to your attention your use of this phrase and how I, and perhaps others, even subconsciously, received it.

    Thanks for your work, Carey. This is such a great post!

    • Dennis on October 24, 2018 at 8:59 am

      With all due respect, dear lady, I think when we are overly sensitive to nominal gender specific language we can easily miss important points in both written and verbal communication. If the language is used in a way that is meant to be offensive or hurtful it should be called out, but if it is used in common, civil, dignified speech or writing to simply identify gender in general, let it go. How is it harming you? Words like “fireman,””policeman,” ‘chair woman,” “manpower,” should not be stumbling blocks that blur your vision from the message. There are many more words out there to trip you up. You’ll be “disappointed” less often if you stop looking for it. =)

  5. julie fischer on October 23, 2018 at 9:01 am

    Carey, this article has so much truth and yet is so humorous! I laughed out loud when you talked about “moving to the jerk column!” Keep writing Carey! This is so good!!

  6. Emma on October 23, 2018 at 8:49 am

    I wish someone would forward this to our President!

    • Candice on October 24, 2018 at 8:40 am

      The *POTUS* is beyond a jerk; he is immoral, unethical, untrustworthy, self-centered, dishonest, inhumane, crude, vulgar and beyond hope!


  7. Dennis on October 23, 2018 at 7:51 am

    #8 is huge. I have personally experienced being “thrown under the bus” by a cowardly (so called) leader who kow-towed to media pressure instead of defending his employees against false accusations of impropriety. After the incident was fully investigated by competent authority, ALL employees were exonerated. Too late though. Reputations were destroyed and one of the involved employees even took her own life 2 years later.

  8. Dane Schofield on January 15, 2018 at 12:06 pm

    Zero comments

  9. Paul on June 27, 2017 at 3:17 am

    11 Surround yourself with sycophantic cronies…

  10. John Worswick on June 23, 2017 at 12:44 pm

    Ya it’s something that the secular world could/should learn. That people ARE the point, not the means and way to get to a different point. After all there are no other end users, just people, so that in itself tells me that they are the main point in the formula. It can be wearisome though.

    • Terry on June 2, 2018 at 12:28 am


  11. Mitch ROyer on June 23, 2017 at 7:10 am

    Carey, Love the post. This would be a great book.

  12. Dave on June 23, 2017 at 5:20 am

    Oh Man…I’m totally 85% jerk (being generous) and 15% leader..Thanks for a GREAT post..I have lots to learn..

  13. Randy Robinson on August 14, 2016 at 7:47 pm

    Carey! I’m new to your podcast and blog. I’m a youth and worship pastor soon to be starting a church from scratch church planter. The info is invaluable. Thank you!!! I love this blog. I’d love to hear you do a similar podcast from a staff pastor’s perspective. Maybe so the senior leaders can hear what makes us (staff pastors) tick and what ticks us off. What makes us love working for them or hate working for them. Just a thought. God bless!

  14. […] 10 Signs You’re Just A Jerk…Not A Leader by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  15. Joe Tiner on August 10, 2016 at 7:24 am

    Zero comments. Not surprising. Jerk leaders retaliate against those who confront them about their abuse.

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