Can Prima Donnas actually be good?

The word “Prima Donna” nowadays is a word most often used to describe an egotistical high-powered sports or entertainment personality. Its meaning almost always has a negative connotation. And every office has one, right?

But are Prima Donnas really all that bad?  Not necessarily.  And every company needs one.  The really successful companies and leaders all have their prima donnas.

Here is a short list of today’s stars known by their industry insiders as notorious prima donnas:

  • Director James Cameron
  • Actor Tom Cruise, Sly Stone
  • Singers Lady Gaga, Cher, Madonna
  • NFL stars, Brett Favre, Deion Sanders, Terrell Owens, John Riggins (I love Riggins)
  • World Soccer star, Renaldo
  • General Patton

Wouldn’t you like to have an equivalent star of this magnitude on your team?

Lincoln had a prima donna.  General Ulysses Grant was a notorious rowdy, raucous, and many times drunken officer.  But when Lincoln was told of Grant’s love for the bottle, he responded: “If I knew his brand, I’d send a barrel or so to all my other generals.”  Grant’s appointment was the turning point of the Civil War.  He was a strong leader like no other.

Confederate Commander Lee had his share of prima donna generals too.  Stonewall Jackson was continually off the reservation throwing temper tantrums when he did not get his way.  But he has gone down as the greatest general of the Civil War.

So what is the point?  The point is that successful leaders recognize that strong people have strong weaknesses too.  And prima donnas are those with extraordinary strengths…and weaknesses.  They know that it does not matter how many tantrums a prima donna throws as long as he or she brings in the customers.

It has been proven time and time again that the most successful hiring managers make staffing decisions to maximize strengths and not to minimize weaknesses.  Successful leaders and managers make strengths productive.  They know you cannot build on weakness.  To achieve results, one must build on all available strengths of the associates, the leaders, and one’s own strength.  Using the strengths of your people and knowing where to deploy them in an organization is the building blocks of success.  The foundation of any successful organization.

One insurance hiring authority told me just last week about his #1 sales producer, “I strive to make her strength (closing complex deals) prominent and her weakness (temperament) irrelevant…and, gosh darn, she is absolutely killing it right now…carrying the office…she sells and everyone gets the hell outta the way.”

This same hiring manager (one of the most highly respected in the WDC insurance industry – and one that most of you reading this know well) went on to explain that individuals can acquire many types of skills and experiences, but they cannot change their temperament.  Courage is the same.  You either have it or you don’t.  And, sure, prima donna sales producers bring their share of drama to the office, but he told me he wouldn’t trade any one of them for what they bring to the fight every day.

He also told me when he identifies a potential prima donna hire, he purposely makes their job “big and demanding.”  It’s just the challenge they need to bring out whatever strength they may have.

So next time you’re watching a game-changing star athlete, movie star, or lead opera singer belting out Evita at the Kennedy Center, just think:  would you want this individual on your team?

Rob Houghton

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