Andrew Cuomo and the Cult of the Asshole Boss
The rise and fall of New York’s governor is what happens when we treat male rage and intimidation as a leadership skill
Andrew Cuomo has never tried to hide who he is: The New York governor is a famous bully. He’ll publicly berate and scream at a reporter for asking a simple question about school closures. He’ll grab a female acquaintance by the face in front of cameras. His feud with New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has been called the nastiest and pettiest dispute in politics; at one point, Cuomo stuck de Blasio with a $485 million Metropolitan Transportation Authority bill just to make his rival’s life harder.
Stories from Cuomo’s early career tend to include the phrase “relentless personal vendetta” more than is strictly ideal. One New York Times investigation of his leadership style reports that state Sen. Liz Krueger, who was perplexed as to why she hadn’t been abused by Cuomo, was told by one of his aides that she’d been placed on the “do-not-yell-at list.” “I responded, ‘You people have such a list?’” Krueger told the Times. “[The aide] said: ‘It is very small.’”
Cuomo’s anger has taken on a more sinister light in recent weeks as several women have come forward to allege that he sexually harassed them. The stories — inappropriate touching, kissing, and hugging and allegations he invited one woman to play strip poker and grabbed another by the face in front of cameras — seem less a contradiction of his volatile public behavior than the logical extension of it.
“Cuomo has created a culture within his administration where sexual harassment and bullying is so pervasive that it is not only condoned but expected,” wrote Lindsey Boylan, the first woman to come forward. “His inappropriate behavior toward women was an affirmation that he liked you. … He used intimidation to silence his critics. And if you dared to speak up, you would face consequences.”
Sure enough, in the wake of Boylan’s allegations, former staffers and colleagues have come forward to allege that Cuomo threatened to ruin or end their careers for any number of minor slights, from accepting a job offer with a rival to failing to properly transfer a call. State Democrats, who spent all last spring hailing Cuomo’s pandemic leadership, have predictably circled the wagons, hailing his anger as a leadership tool — an “executive skill,” as sources told the Times. “You have to fight to change the status quo,” says senior adviser Richard Azzopardi. “The governor understands the political value of taking action and creating the perception of strength,” according to former de Blasio spokesman Eric Phillips.
On some level, this is true. This specific way of being — loud, forceful, intimidating, contemptuous of women and personal boundaries — has for a long time been our image of what a strong leader looks like. I believe the stories about Cuomo because I’ve worked for so many men exactly like him. I’ve updated their spreadsheets, transferred their calls, run their corporate Twitter accounts; I’ve made their lattes and helped them find what they’re looking for in retail stores; I have waited on their tables and evaded their hands as they reached out to grab me. In a culture that valorizes male anger as “forceful” and “decisive,” being a powerful man means being a jackass a whole lot of the time.
The underlying ideology of male dominance means that power and influence tend to flow toward the most abusive men in any given organization.
Not everyone can get away with it. Women, regardless of their competence, only acquire influence in the workplace if they are seen as “warm.” Stories about Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar berating her staff derailed her presidential campaign. Yet in that same election, the Republican incumbent stood accused of sexual misconduct by dozens of women, and the top two contenders for the Democratic nomination had also faced allegations of workplace bullying and misconduct. The reports of Joe Biden touching and kissing female subordinates without consent were written off as mere overfriendliness. The New York Times report on Bernie Sanders’ “notoriously tough” management style and “history of angry outbursts” at his staff (which anonymous staffers described to a Vermont paper, less charitably, as Sanders being “unbelievably abusive” and “an asshole”) landed with a thud. Klobuchar had to be kind to deserve respect, but powerful men intimidating their subordinates were simply behaving like, well, powerful men. Regardless of political positions, the underlying ideology of male dominance means that power and influence tend to flow toward the most abusive men in any given organization.
So no, Cuomo has never hidden his abusive tendencies because he’s never had to. For most of his career, they were an asset. Yet, no matter how much we want to believe assholes get stuff done, it simply isn’t true. “We’d love to find out if there are good aspects of abusive leadership,” a Rutgers professor of management and labor relations told the Times last year. “There’s been a lot of research. We just can’t find any upside.” Instead, research indicates that leadership through fear creates disloyalty and dissension; hyperaggressive bosses cause people to emotionally detach from their jobs, quit when possible, and (if you work in politics) eventually end the abuser’s career by telling major media outlets how he behaves. Cuomo may have handled the pandemic well enough (at least, he did according to his own account; he’s now being investigated for underreporting nursing home deaths), but famously, countries led by macho strongmen — Jair Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson, and Donald Trump — did the worst job of containing the coronavirus.
Male bullying is validated by the culture not because it works but because it meshes with our gendered beliefs about what a leader should look like and how men should behave. It’s a standard designed to shut women out of power, stereotyping them as “weak” if they don’t act like abusive men and monstrous if they do. It’s also designed to perpetuate violent misogyny; sexual harassment is a hallmark of this leadership style precisely because harming and disrespecting women is a traditional way for men to prove themselves. Elevating only the least responsible, moral, or compassionate men into power ultimately lays the groundwork for systemic abuses. When we teach men they have to be jerks to succeed, it can hardly be surprising that the world is run mostly by jerks like Andrew Cuomo. No one actually likes living in that world. The question is whether we’re ready to change.