Five warning signs you have a “brilliant jerk” to deal with…. And what to do before it’s too late.

Author:   |   Date: 25/04/2019   |   Categories: Balancing work and life, Career Development, Compassion, Decision Making, Facilitation, Intuition, Leadership, Leading in crisis, Mindfulness, Strategic Planning

A brilliant jerk has been defined as a high performer with a bad attitude.  The type of person who can bring results, make high level connections, be a creative genius – but no one really wants to be around for any length of time. 

Having them on your team – as an artistic director, adviser, fundraiser - can lift your efforts exponentially. 

However, having someone who is solely driven by ego and self-interest will undermine the collective efforts of any organisation.  The company becomes about upholding the vision of one individual – and loses the flexibility and agility needed to survive in today’s rapidly changing work and economic environment. 

The problem of the “brilliant jerk” can be most obvious in the arts, charity and community sector, where “founder syndrome” can hold organisations hostage to the will of one individual.  Or it can become an issue when the organisation has a culture of tolerating and even enabling ego-driven and high-risk decision-making  - the big (un-funded) development, the “game-changing” but un-researched innovation, the costly performances – above considered organisational strategy. 

Their behaviour can become so toxic that you experience major issues in your staff wellbeing: from bullying to absenteeism to increasing staff turnover.  These internal issues can then spill into your external reputation – a slow kiss of death for organisations responsive to public good will and support. 

So how can you quickly identify a “jerk” (brilliant or not), deal with them quickly, and limit the impact on yourself and your team.  


IDENTIFYING THE BRILLIANT JERK – 5 early warning signs that look good on the surface. 

  1. They stand out

Brilliant jerks are just that – brilliant.  So they shine in their environment.  

They may be physically intimidating – taller, stronger, louder – than those around them.  Their clothes may call attention to themselves.  Or they can use techniques such as always being late, being first to speak on any topic, being decisive even when the decision is not theirs to make. 

Whatever it is – they find a way to be memorable and overshadow anyone else around them. 

  1. They are charming

Most brilliant jerks are “life of the party” types.  They can tell a joke well, relate a funny story, attract and hold attention.  They can make you feel like the most important person in the room, flatter you, make you feel special.  

They can also use paying attention as a way of attracting others to them.  Especially those that are younger or less experienced.  Giving attention is a way of gaining loyalty and support.  

  1. They can be amazingly talented and productive

In the arts it may be a “star” that attracts new audiences: in the community sector, someone who can connect you to new and lucrative donors.  They can bring media attention, drive up the profile of the organisation and generally set you on a path to growth and development that simply was not possible.  

One brilliant jerk can make a major difference to a team – positively and negatively – this is often the problem.  Your brilliant jerk may also be your best performer: what would you do if they resigned or left?  

  1. They seek positions of power

Not surprisingly your brilliant jerk may have a slightly different title to the rest of the team. They may seek to be spokesperson or similar, to play a prominent role in any presentations or public profile.  And if they do not get that role, they can diminish the work of others by undermining their talents, authority and contributions. 

  1. They know secrets

In the first days of knowing a brilliant jerk, you may be so won over by their attention and charm that you may disclose something you later regret telling them.  They make friends with those in power or hold information.  

They want to know what is going on – knowledge is power. 



Getting rid of the brilliant jerk may seem like a backwards decision for the organisation – why would you want to lose your star performer.  However, once you are clear that you have an individual who is unhealthily self-interested or even self-obsessed, as a leader in your team you need to take steps.  This can include:

  • Identifying the issues and the risk this individual poses to your organisation
  • Providing clear examples, and if possible previous attempts to mitigate the issue
  • Gaining support from your CEO, board etc to take the actions needed
  • Planning a strategy that gives you support (an extra person in the room etc) and ensures you own wellbeing.

Jerks in your team can undermine your authority, your reason and even self-belief.  They sail close to the wind of impropriety but don’t step over. They create a narrative that supports their world-view. They can have strong allies to back their position, including within your own support network. 

Before you can tackle an undermining individual or member of your team – you need to re-establish and connect with your own power.  

Strategies like understanding your strengths and values are essential before you start to tackle the problem.  This will provide a strong platform from which you can have the conversations that you need to have – that take patience, planning and courage. 



Once you have got rid of the brilliant jerk – how do you rebuild your organisation and team.  

The first is to ensure that there is clear communication about why the “jerk” left and what happens next.  That is establish a new narrative that makes it clear that the vision and mission of this company is more than one individual.  If you do this with integrity, the atmosphere should change from one of fear to one of relief, freedom and self-expression.  The pressure valve has been released. 

The next is to build on this positive energy to establish clear messages about your values, your principles, what is and what is not tolerated.  Invite your team into an “adult to adult” conversation about what contributes to positive work culture and what does not.  

And finally, do something specific, meaningful and practical that underpins these values in your organisation.  If you stand for wellbeing first – introduce an EAP program to support your teams’ mental health.  If you stand for creative freedom – have a program ready to incubate new ideas.  

Even if the action is small, inexpensive and a time-limited test – make it a visible statement that the world has changed, and you no longer support those who are purely egotistical and self-centred.  

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