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Ken & Barbarian

Scyth2 This past spring, I heard a fascinating speaker talk about the Scythians.  For those of you unfamiliar with Greek history, these barbarians were a pretty fierce bunch.  In battle, they would drink the blood of the first man they killed.  Whomever he slayed, he cut off their head (to present to the king later as "proof of purchase").  The scalps he turned into a kind of napkin, that he hung from his horse's bridle (you know, bragging rights).  The skull bone was lined with leather or even something as nice as gold (those wealthy Scythians sure knew how to live).  He would use these drinking utensils for dinner parties, regaling his guests with the gory details of how each poor sap died.  Over all, they just were not nice people to know.

An amazing thing happened over time, though.  The Scythians' fierceness imploded.  They became a laughingstock to all the people who knew about them.  They were the butt of jokes.  "Did you hear the one about the two Scythians who walked into a bar...?"  Their mean-spirited reputation got the better of them.

GeiserBut this isn't a post about ancient bullies.  It's actually a post about modern ones.  And, unfortunately, these bullies inhabit the bodies of executives.  Being a consultant, I've dealt with quite a few bully executives over my career.  These executives are powerful enough to affect the careers of many people.  I've embodied all of these executives into one character that we'll call "Ken."  Here are a few of Ken's antics:

  • Whenever he was about to announce something totally unfair, he would preface it by saying "in all fairness."  We would keep IAF counts during meetings, because the number of times he said this phrase, the more unfair we knew the edict was.
  • Ken would make himself totally unavailable for meetings... until he knew that the project team had a critical meeting scheduled.  Then he would insist that we had a meeting with him right then and there... only to cancel it at the last second.
  • Ken would blow his top - verbally, loudly, and publicly - when he perceived he had been crossed or challenged in any way.  One time, Ken had neglected to communicate a critical message he had promised he would handle "right then and there."  When a person in that meeting with Ken sent out an email the following day to the affected parties referencing the message he was supposed to have sent, he stormed to that person's office and ripped into the poor soul such that everyone on the floor could hear.
  • He was exceptionally irrational, and he only cared about being right and winning arguments.  In one meeting, he actually said (actually, screamed to the point of popping a vein), "I don't care what the facts say.  The only fact you need to care about is that I'm right."
  • Ken was aware of his reputation and would boast about his "bad boy" behavior.  He would use profanity regularly, and he was proud of his ability to supposedly strike fear into the hearts of others.


  • Ken was mocked behind his back by these same people.  His peers and his subordinates would make snide comments, roll their eyes. and openly laugh at Ken's behavior.  Ken's "ferocity" had imploded on itself to the point where his credibility no longer existed among the people who should have counted.  People would hold "Did you hear what Ken did this time?" meetings... just to share their latest Ken stories.  Ken's outbursts would burden the email system as they spread like wildfire throughout the company (and to other companies).  One such "Ken" ended up getting fired from the company, and it took him months to find a new job since all of the "corpses in his wake" ran to their HR departments with red flags and warning signals.

The bottom line is that being a bully executive has an undesired ripple effect.  To all the Kens out there, you may think your bad behavior is getting your way in meetings and transactions, but you're only winning the battle to lose the war.  To the rest of us who have to deal with the Kens of the world, what's been your best strategy for handling him (besides passive-aggressive behind-the-back ridicule)?


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Steve Farber

In all fairness, that's one hell of an analogy. And another beautifully written post (and, again, pregnant with book possibilities). By the way, I'm 3/4 of the way through "Forest" and I'm digging it. Write more books, please.

Timothy Johnson

Thanks, Steve. As I was writing this post, I was also thinking about the Jeffers character from your book, Radical Leap. He could have easily fit into the "Ken" mode, but had a change of heart by the end of the book. I wonder how somebody like "Mr 51%" would respond to this description. What goes through the bully executive's mind to make him/her act the way s/he does?

Lucia Mancuso

Great Post Tim

Hmm - I have always had a gift with getting the Ken's of the world to bully everyone but me - I make them believe that I understand and emphathise with them and that all my ideas are their's (I'm fine with not taking credit).
I laugh at Ken's in front of them and make them belive that the laughter is about how funny I think they are when they get angry because they have every right to be.

I've always sat back and watched them create their own demise - it is enivitable with the Ken's of the world.

I try not to talk about them with other employees either - because at the heart of it - I feel so sorry for them. Poor Ken - clueless and jobless.

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