The Designated Asshole: Lessons from my Dad on Leadership
Kathryn Grayson Nanz Jul 10, 2017
When I was young, my dad sat me down and gave me one of the most helpful pieces of advice I've ever heard – if I ever got into a difficult situation and needed an "out," I could blame him. He gave me full permission to play him up as the crazy strict dad who would ground me for a million years if I stepped even an inch out of line (spoiler alert: he wasn't and he's a great dad). If I ever was at a party that got too crazy or offered a drink I didn't want, he encouraged me to just go "Man, I wish! My dad is such a hard ass – I'd be dead if he caught me! Thanks, but no thanks – I'd better not risk it." He calls it being The Designated Asshole: someone who steps up and is willing to be the bad guy on your behalf. To be fair, my dad probably did not come up with this concept. But he taught it to me, so he gets the credit (for now).
Like a Designated Driver, The Designated Asshole is someone who has agreed in advance to do the less fun, but responsible thing. They've volunteered to put their foot down on something or be that guy on a contentious issue. It's powerful to know that you always have someone in your corner, ready to back you up as needed. And where you might not be willing to take a firm hand with someone, The Designated Asshole is always ready to say it how it is.
I don't recall having to use The Designated Asshole excuse too much as a kid – turns out I was just uncool by nature and didn't end up in a lot of those kinds of scenarios. But as I grew up and started to take on management and leadership roles of my own, I realized what a gift The Designated Asshole really was. When you feel like you're stuck between a rock and a hard place, having a Designated Asshole gives you the leverage to push back on something where you might not have had it on your own – especially as a new hire or younger employee.
The Designated Asshole could be your boss, your HR director, or even a picky client. The idea is that there's someone who has agreed to be the last line of defense: "And if they have a problem with that, they can take it up with me!" They're willing to lay down the law – to absorb the conflict and be a bit of a jerk about it, if needed. Half the time, just knowing there is a Designated Asshole prevents conflict from arising at all.
Where deadlines might have been pushed by an overeager coworker in sales, the dev now has the authority (backed by their Designated Asshole) to say "Sorry, I really wish I could jump over to your project, but Designated Asshole is a real dick about it if I don't do jobs in the priority order we agreed on." Where a junior dev might have been bullied into cutting corners on a project because someone else thinks it's too slow, they now feel confident enough (backed by their Designated Asshole) to push back with a "Yeah, I find this a little tedious too. But if I don't follow this process document to the letter, Designated Asshole is gonna read me for it in my next review."
As I've gone through different jobs, teams, and leadership positions, I've tried to take it upon myself to be the Designated Asshole when it was appropriate and needed – to lift that burden for someone else, and give them a safe "out" if they ever wanted it. If you have an employee working beneath you who doesn't feel ready or equipped to push back against a coworker who outranks them (or is just louder than them), this is a great way to go to bat for them while keeping it low-key and letting them still remain in control of the situation – remember, there's a big difference between a kid saying "My dad would kill me for that!" to another kid VS. one kid's dad calling the parents of the other kid to sort their problems out for them.
As you head back to work this Monday, I encourage you to take a look at your team structure and see where you might benefit from a Designated Asshole. And if you see someone struggling to find their footing, consider backing them up by being their Designated Asshole; they'll appreciate it. It can be a hard job, and it doesn't come with a trophy – but I don't think it would be one you could put up on your desk, anyway.