Bob Knight: the perfect mascot for "The No Asshole Rule"

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knight1I have had an advance copy of Stanford Professor Robert Sutton’s book The No Asshole Rule:  Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn’t for a couple of months now and have been waiting for the right time to weigh in with my thoughts.  You may say that Robert and I bonded over the word “asshole” – he was pointed to my Open Letter to CXOs post by a colleague in Australia and, after connecting, we have shared thoughts about  civil and uncivil workplace behavior.

There have been some excellent, thoughtful reviews of his book already by people like Guy Kawasaki, David Maister and Sigurd Rinde.  What more could I add?

Then, while watching ESPN while on vacation, I saw that Texas Tech basketball coach Bob Knight was about to achieve the “winningest coach” (is that a word?) designation.

I will qualify this post by saying that I don’t know much about basketball, or basketball coaching techniques.  The fact that I briefly dated the center of my high school basketball team and he went on to win the state championship the same year is pure coincidence (but true – San Anselmo Sir Francis Drake High Pirates – go team!).

I do know a lot, however, about assholes, having worked as a consultant in Corporate America for many years.

Robert Sutton defines assholes through two simple tests:

Test One:  After talking to the alleged asshole, does the “target” feel oppressed, humiliated, de-energized, or belittled by the person?  In particular, does the target feel worse about him or herself?

Test Two:  Does the alleged asshole aim his or her venom at people who are less powerful rather than at those people who are more powerful?

There are also some more specific indicators, defined by Bob as The Dirty Dozen:

The Dirty Dozen

Common Everyday Actions That Assholes Use

  1. Personal insults
  2. Invading one’s “personal territory”
  3. Uninvited physical contact
  4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
  5. “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
  6. Withering email flames
  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  8. Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
  9. Rude interruptions
  10. Two-faced attacks
  11. Dirty looks
  12. Treating people as if they are invisible

Following this criteria, the flamboyant, angry and chair-throwing Bob Knight is a card-carrying asshole.  What I found interesting was the conversation on ESPN’s Quite Frankly, Hosted by Steven A. Smith, about whether or not  his outrageous behavior should muddy his designation as the most winning coach ever.

Steven Smith had two journalist guests on, whose names I didn’t write down.  One called Bob Knight’s passing to the top slot “a dark day in college basketball history.”  The other journalist, from Bob’s former hometown of Indiana, said that “If Bob’s employers don’t have a problem with his behavior, why should I?  College basketball is a billion dollar business and all that matters is winning games.”

Herein lies my big beef with highly productive assholes like Bob Knight.

There is no denying that he is an incredibly talented coach who understands how to mobilize a team to win games.  But what is the collateral damage?  The journalist who stated that “all that matters is winning games” is overlooking a huge factor:  Bob Knight is coaching college students who are in the midst of learning how to be productive citizens, at the same time they are playing basketball.  You cannot tell me that his behavior will not influence some of them in both their basketball and business careers.  My niece is a student at Texas Tech, and I am sorry that she has to witness his antics on the basketball floor as she enjoys her team’s games.

Over and over again, I have seen talented spoiled brats in senior level corporate positions stay in their jobs because their bosses were afraid to “mess with a winning formula.”

I also think there is a certain mythic reputation given to some superstars who are actually more admired because their wildly unacceptable behavior is untouchable.  It is usually stopped only by one of two factors:  criminal charges or a lawsuit.  Then you see the finest of corporate PR backpedaling as management attempts to show that they were “taken by surprise” by the allegations or “totally unaware” of the behavior until the charges were filed.

Robert gives some great, specific advice for avoiding assholes in the workplace, including his somewhat controversial perspective that sometimes we learn to “develop indifference and emotional detachment.”  I don’t think that he is advocating staying in a toxic setting if it is affecting your health or well-being.  The way I take the advice is to not give up your power to assholes in your workplace by leaving with your tail between your legs if you have valid reasons for staying there.  Be like an Aikido practitioner and use the force of their negative energy to gently direct them to their own demise.  If you engage in direct conflict with them, you will lose.

The most important lesson I take from the book as an entrepreneur is twofold:  Watch to make sure that I don’t behave as an asshole, and avoid them in the form of clients, partners or mentors.  I have had mentors in the past who pushed me to be more aggressive, critical and in-your-face with my clients.  As I looked at their own lives, I saw that besides financial success, their highly critical behavior tended to leak into their personal lives and they had difficult relationships with their spouses and children.

There is nothing glamorous or powerful about making someone feel inferior, ashamed or humiliated.  As much as we hold up competition and winning in our culture, it should not be the only criteria for measuring success.

I think Bob Knight should have been stopped in his tracks a long time ago by his management and held accountable for his behavior.  His incredible talent and skill is overshadowed by juvenile behavior that is embarrassing to him and his family.  What a waste of a tremendous gift.  And what a disservice to the many young men he mentored as a coach.

If you are plagued by a similar figure in your workplace, you will enjoy Robert’s book.

18 Responses to “Bob Knight: the perfect mascot for "The No Asshole Rule"”

  1. ducaati says:

    First, let me congratulate you for not sugar-coating the situation. We’ve all had quite enough of that. Second, thanks for elucidating and amplifying a few points similar to a situation I just left. The particular asshole I worked for was adept at channeling his personality into his direct subordinates, sort of a “networker-asshole”. I do acknowledge that upon rare occasion it is called for to put a person in a state of fear of failure, but by and large, it is very costly in the longer term, specifically in turnover, decreased morale, and overall lowered employee productivity.

    Quite honestly, I do not often wish to bear the cost to MYSELF, and if I choose to get rough with a subordinate, it is because I care more for their welfare than for the relationship. Call it an act of “tough love”. I had to do this for a good friend some years ago, and the negative period was brief, and he has never stopped thanking me since, because I pushed him to obtaining a professional certification which opened MANY doors for him.

    During my 15 years’ service with the Armed Forces, (USAF) I held a job akin to that of a prison guard for 9 months. I was expected to give the new arrivals a “welcome they would remember” which I did with some degree of gusto, sufficiently so to be requested for 2 return engagements. The theory was “tear them down and rebuild them how they should be”. I noticed that I was harsher with my children in this time, and while I do have a great relationship with both of them many years later, I would imagine they might not report favorably on me in this 9 month period.

    Anyway, the chronic state of being an asshole is one which I believe most executives, managers, etc, would be wise to nip in the bud, but that really goes back to our society’s worship of profit above all else- so all I have to say on that is- “BE THE CHANGE YOU WISH TO SEE IN THE WORLD” (Mahatma Ghandi).

    Peace, and God (however yours is named) Bless

  2. brownshoes says:

    Folks, dignity and empowerment are just fine for our everyday lives. But we as a society need something more.

    We need a few people, in the backbone of a nation, particularly our military and pubic service, who still spell Character and Disicipline with capital letters and understand these qualities as simple, non negotiables.

    Character is a bright hard line. I am not going to define it for the Robert Sutton generation, but it is not always nice or fair. Discipline is not just being a good little boy or girl and brushing your teeth and respecting others – it is the ability to act as part of a TEAM and OBEY.

    These fundamentals cannot be taught by model or example. They can only be drummed in by adversity and confrontation, by someone who is willing to contront. Bob Knight understands this, as do our military veterans. Thank God someone still does.

  3. Bob,

    Perhaps it’s possible for non-assholes to have some asshole moments that result in elevating performance. Does an asshole moment an asshole make? Bob Knight’s behavior isn’t periodic. It’s chronic. Nobody should want to be around, or participate in the life of, a chronic asshole (or any other toxic person). Personally, I think the price is far too high.

    I enjoy your books (all of them). Pam, I enjoy this blog, too.

  4. Bob Sutton says:


    You might be right. There are times when demeaning people and pushing them around and making them beholden to you for their esteem does seem produce better performance. I didn’t want to do it, but because of people like Bob Knight and Steve Jobs I felt compelled to add a chapter to the book on the virtues of assholes. But assholes who are winners are still assholes and I don’t want to be around them, nor do I want any of the people I care about to be around them.

  5. Tim Weiler says:

    I don’t disagree that Bobby Knight’s antics were a shame.

    Leadership is about results. My theory is that Bob learned that his style of leadership produced the results he was looking for, and he never bothered changing his style.

  6. Just imagine how productive these assholes could be if they had been taught how to make people feel good about themselves…

  7. Olivia says:

    Having worked for one particularly bad asshole, I can say that the list of asshole behaviours is unbelievably spot on. This man used them all – I could have sued him for some of it. He died of cancer several months ago at age 52. I bumped into his wife at a restaurant, and she told me how everyone she’s had to deal with since his death has been very selfish. I know he left behind a lot of enemies, and so-called friends. I feel for her, and somehow now wish I had tried to see a better side of him. At the time it took everything within me to pick myself up from the wounded self esteem of having worked for him.

    Am I glad he passed away? No. I would have much rather seen him learn a bit about love and humility before the end of his days.

    After me he hired a new assistant, and this person gelled with him so well, you know, ‘got’ all of his jokes, answered him back confidentally, told him where to go when needed.

    Why couldn’t I be like that?

    Sincerely, Olivia.

  8. Rick Hamrick says:

    The only good news is that we can count on the universe properly rewarding people of this ilk. You always get back what you put out, even if it doesn’t happen immediately or is not obvious to the outside observer, so Bobby Knight will have the chance to “enjoy” the energy he has been sending out all these years. I don’t envy him that consequence.

    Great information, Pam!

  9. Ron Davison says:

    Bad management is, in part, a legacy of bad linkages. Free market economies work better than centrally-planned economies not because the government does more to reward or punish through praise or cajoling but because the actors in the economy see and respond to natural consequences. Within organizations, that simply isn’t true, hence the abundance of odd superstitions about how to “motivate.” A buddy and I have just begun a blog to begin categorizing the list of management myths – you have surely touched on one more that merits inclusion.
    Thanks for not so benignly accepting wins as a justification.

  10. John Fritz says:

    I recognize at least 2 former bosses in this post…..Big Giant Assholes. At least in this case the revised adage “Time wounds all heels” has come true, leaving these guys as leaders of nothing and carrying a radioactive reputation.

    Go Pam Go!

  11. Shame. definition: the painful feeling arising from the consciousness of something dishonorable, improper, ridiculous, etc., done by oneself or another.
    (key distinction who is the one with the “painful feeling”)

    What IS happening to US(the US)? Pam you are dead on — and here is another one Bob Nardelli of Home Depot — see my blog — same shame soup different flavor!

  12. Brody says:

    I agree with the commenter above me, there’s a lot more to Bob Knight than people want to give him credit for. Ours is a society based on shock value and that is why Knight’s good deeds have been vastly overshadowed by his “antics,” which are usually a direct result of his passion for the game. A passion that most people never feel in their lifetime.

    I too have had numerous stories from former players about the character and discipline that Bob Knight instilled in them as a basketball coach. He improved them as human beings and made them better men.

  13. llt says:

    I think it’s a shame that so many people have missed out on the upside of Bob Knight. The antics are only a small side but more well known and documented than the good. It has been written and said by members of his past teams that he builds character and discipline in his kids and he’s very concerned with how they turn out as people. The Naval Academy/Army members have said that they might not still be alive without the lessons he taught them. I think what kind of people they turn out to be is far more important than winning games.

    Hi Ilt:

    I don’t discount his tremendous strengths at all and am not surprised that some of his former players got lots of value from what he taught. Many brilliant, charismatic people like Bobby Knight have incredible strenghths that have very positive outcomes on the people they work with.

    My point is that because his eggregious behavior was never addressed as it should have been early on, his real accomplishments will always be eclipsed by his antics. And I do not think that there is any justifyable excuse for saying that it is appropriate to behave as he does in the type of position he is in. I don’t see it as a “small,” isolated incident … it is part of his ongoing, public behavior.

    Just the other day at a press conference, he told the assembled journalists that they were “a couple of steps away from prostitutes.” Is this really the model we want his players to emulate?

    Because he is capable of great things, I would like to hold him to a higher standard. I pity the therapist or coach who would take him on, but maybe a professional could help him turn around his mean ways.

    The ends don’t justify the means, IMHO.



  14. apu says:

    A long time lurker here, I found this very thoughtful. (Something which I’ve also felt a long time, but would never have been able to put together so well).

    The effects of assholes go much beyond just the success some of them may bring through their “aggressiveness”. The costs of team members not expressing dissent, low creativity on the team, and ofcourse other employees being unhappy, are some of the costs that management just chooses to overlook.

  15. Nice job developing the case against the idolization of Bobby Knight in the face of his long-time hostile and demeaning actions.

    As a corporate consultant for 30 years, I’ve had the chance to see what happens when the ends justify the means. When a couple generations of college students are “led” by his example, we shouldn’t act surprised if the No Asshole Rule takes on added meaning in our institutions.

    Thanks for the post.

    Steve Roesler

  16. Bob Sutton says:


    I agree with you completely. It is weird how nicely the press is treating him. Thanks for the very throughtful post.

  17. Matt Langdon says:

    I just wrote a post on my blog ( about the gamble Marvin Lewis took in recruiting players with dubious character. It had a short term benefit, but that hasn’t lasted long. The same thing applies, as you pointed out, with Bob Knight’s effect on his players. They may have success in the short term, but this man is filling them with all the wrong ideas about what’s acceptable behaviour.

    I didn’t know who Bob Knight was before I came to America, but I am now fully disgusted by him.

  18. Scot Herrick says:

    As a longtime resident of the Midwest (and Big Ten), I’d agree with this assessment, regardless of how many wins show up in the win/loss column.

    In my experience, you can directly confront them and come from a position of power, or ignore them and drive them crazy.

    It amazes me how little sports management is willing to deal with disruptive behavior. Especially in a position where firing is easy (as in a coach or a player on contract).

    If you can, certainly avoid working for one of these people; the grief you take is pretty high.