From Nice Guy to Respected Leader: 5 Tactics Nice Guys Can Use to Gain Respect and Avoid Finishing Last

What he said to me was, “You’re such a nice guy, Mike. The nicest.”

What he meant was, “Everyone is trampling all over you. You’re not aggressive enough. You’re never going to get anywhere in life, and you certainly aren’t going to find success in this company.”

I’ve heard it a thousand times before.

“Mike, you’re such a nice guy.”


“Mike, you’re the nicest. So nice.”

Which would be great if it were a compliment. But it’s not.

Of course, there’s truth to what they say. I am nice. I do treat others with kindness. I would give you the shirt of my back if you needed it.

But their so-called compliments are laced with an undercurrent of misgiving concerning my ability to get ahead in life or, at the very least, avoid the wrath of distrustful, self-interested sinners who would rob me of my possessions, my honor, and my virtue.

These stabs at my character disguised as flattery are enough to make me wonder if I should be more of an a-hole.

Nice guys finish last, right?

What’s With the Double Meaning?

A quick internet search for “nice guy” returns a list of articles on

  1. how to stop being a nice guy, 

  2. how to get what you want (usually a girl), and 

  3. why “nice guy’s” are actually sinister and manipulative.

These two harmless words, when strung together, hold quite the negative connotation. The phrase has come to represent the type of person who is passive-aggressive, says one thing but means another, and loses all self-respect by bending over backward for others regardless of how it affects (or even hurts) them.

You probably know a few nice guys. Maybe you’re reading this now because you suspect you are one.

They’re the guys who go along with everything. They start and end their day worried about what others think. Their ability to avoid conflict is undisputed, always shying away from confrontation, never stick up for what’s right. 

Which begs the questions, should you stop being nice and, can being too nice come at a cost?

He let someone take his Uber… such a nice guy.

He let someone take his Uber… such a nice guy.

How Nice is Too Nice?

Just like other aspects of life that get out of balance, when you place too much emphasis on accommodating others needs at the expense of your own, you’ll quickly find yourself stressed, overwhelmed, and resentful.

Taking responsibility for other people’s feelings is the most common way this happens. 

You tactfully tell someone the truth, they take personal offense, and you find yourself apologizing for... speaking the truth? Though you delivered this truth with love and kindness, the receiving party gets emotional, defensive, upset. So you apologize because you feel responsible when, in reality, the other person chose to react the way they did.

That’s being too nice.

Of course, this happens because you seek others approval, another sign you’re being too nice. We all want to be loved and needed, but when your decisions and actions revolve around receiving that love and approval at the expense of what’s right, you've gone too far. You’re going to get tagged with the “nice guy” status.

This often rears up on the brink of conflict.

An argument starts. You don’t want to offend. You want to look good. You don’t want to fight. So you immediately take the side of least resistance. Sure, some (most) battles aren’t worth fighting and staying focused on the big picture is best. But there’s a difference between staying focused on what matters and bowing to bad behavior simply to avoid confrontation. Wrong is wrong, and sometimes you have to say so. If you don’t, you’ll end up resenting it later.

Which is the final way to tell if you are being to nice. 

Taking care of others at the expense of your relationships, your health, or your work will only breed resentment. Wishing you had stood up for something that someone else did in your stead will do the same. Resentment is often the result of being too nice, of going along with something you didn’t want to. It’s a sure way to tell you should have taken a different approach.

These four tells—taking responsibility for others feelings, seeking others approval, avoiding conflict, and continually exchanging your needs for others—are the quintessential “nice guy” attributes that give being nice a bad name. When you take on these qualities, it’s too easy for others to ramrod their opinions, their tasks, and their feelings down your throat, making you appear weak and feel resentful. 

A room full of nice guys with all four of these attributes would get eaten alive by even a single cunning, narcissistic, political alpha-male. 

It’s how Ned Stark lost his head.

And while we can’t rewrite Game of Thrones (as much as you may want to), we can learn some lessons from successful leaders who utilize their nice qualities to get ahead instead of finishing last.

How to Be Nice Without Finishing Last

Look back on the successes you’ve had in your life. How many of them came from being a jerk? 

I’d bet not many. 

The few times I’ve acted like an aggressive prick led me nowhere; the victim was quick to defend themselves and show how what they did was right. They’d often go further, lashing out and proving how was actually in the wrong.

Furthermore, none of the massively successful people I’ve read about or know personally were anything but nice. They were kind, respectful, and always looking for the win-win. Yet somehow their niceness wasn’t perceived as weakness. They weren’t taken advantage of. They weren’t rolled over.

Instead, they followed a few principles that helped them respectfully and politely hold their ground without looking like a stick in the mud, get what they wanted without being perceived as a jerk, and be kind without being perceived as a “nice guy.”

1. Don’t Ask, Suggest

I consider one of my first bosses the stereotypical man’s man, a football-playing, sharply-dressed corporate leader with no chance of being mistaken as a nice guy. Yet none of his employees had a bad thing to say about him. In fact, we sang his praises when he wasn’t around, and watched his every move in rapt attention when he was. 

His restaurant routine was the most fascinating.

We’d sit down and, glancing briefly over the menu, he’d snap it shut and signal for the waiter. Sensing urgency in his demeanor, the waiter would hustle over and, before having a moment to list the specials of the day, he’d put his order in to set the pace. You knew right then that you’d better be ready to order on your turn. He’d order his food and drink at the same time, hand over the menu, then point to who’s turn it was to order next. When the last person had ordered, he made one final request: bring the check with the food.

It was a clinic on efficiency. But it was also a lesson in leading.

My boss could have asked if we were ready to order. He could have played into the routine we’re all familiar with at any restaurant (sit down, order drinks, order food, wait for the check). Instead, he set the tone. He led the charge. Politely, of course. But everyone knew we were playing by his rules.

And we liked it.

There was no question as to who would go next. No back and forth politeness. No indecisive ordering. Nobody waiting for someone else to take the lead. None of this nice-guy asking around and around in circles.

Successful people know what they want and where they’re going. 

They take charge and control of the outcome in the most polite yet confident way. 

They make life happen to them instead of letting others direct it.

They don’t ask. They suggest. They lead. 

2. Draw the Line

As I was writing this article, I stopped into one of the busiest Costco’s in the Washington, D.C. area. 

Thousands of shoppers were pushing gargantuan carts full of bulk food products every which way. I’ve had more standing room in a Tokyo subway at rush hour. 

Anyways, we get through checkout and enter the line with a kind old lady checking receipts at the end. Everyone goes through this line to prevent shoplifting. It takes less than three seconds per customer. It’s Costco law. 

This day though, my spider-sense tingled to my 8 o’clock; some guys cart was inching up on my left in an attempt to cut the line and take pole position. I got aggressive, closing the distance to the person in front of me, shrinking any opportunity for him to stick even one shopping cart wheel between us.

But he persisted.

I got to the receipt checking lady first, but he wasn’t satisfied with falling in behind. Immediately after taking back my receipt, this guy thrust his own into her hands and pushed his cart in front of mine, cutting me off from leaving until his receipt was checked. 

The receipt checking lady knew what was up. He had totally cut me off and blocked any chance of exit. Not wanting to cause a scene though, she said nothing. 

With his article in the back of my mind and my wife and kids watching, I wasn’t about to pass up the opportunity to take a stand.

“SIR,” I said in my most surprised and guilt-ridden tone, “excuse me?!”

I pointed with all five fingers at the cart dam he’d created with his cart, waving him out of the way curtly, forcefully almost. Had I Jedi powers, my hand wave would have thrown his cart full of toilet paper and dog food straight across the warehouse (wouldn’t that have been a sight?).

He moved. More importantly, he waited his turn. 

The younger, nice-guy me would have blown off the incident and let this cutter have his way. I would have cursed him in the solitude of my car, wished I hadn’t been such a “nice guy,” and told my friends about his jerk-move later (I guess I’m doing that now :-))

But that day, I had to draw the line. 

I wouldn’t allow that behavior from my kids, and so with all three of them watching, I showed everyone the line that I wouldn’t allow Mr. cut-face to cross. And I did it without screaming, fighting, or being (too much of) a dick.

Nice guys don’t draw the line. They let others change their plans, compromise their values, and get away with wrongdoing. In turn, they earn no respect. What’s worse, the wrongdoers keep on doing wrong to others.

Sometimes you have to draw a line. 

And though drawing the line may feel confrontational, just remember this: Don’t dear... You can and should and will handle it well.

I was not about to let this no-talent clown push me and my cart into the ditch.

I was not about to let this no-talent clown push me and my cart into the ditch.

3. Trust Yourself

Confrontation sucks. 

Most people don’t like it. Many (myself included) are afraid of it. Afraid of what others will think. Afraid that you’ll say the wrong thing. Afraid the confrontation will escalate. Afraid that you’ll “lose” the confrontation and be worse for the wear. 

Nice guys let that fear erode trust in themselves. 

But you have to trust yourself to handle difficult situations. Have confidence that you can and will handle it well. 

The fact that you are worried about making things worse, what others will think, or losing means you are unlikely to muck things up. And, even if you lose the confrontation, it’s unlikely the aggressor will come back for more. 

Trust yourself to handle a difficult situation, then handle it.

4. Bad News is More Like Milk than Wine

This one’s simple... 

Have bad news to share with someone? Share it. 

It’s not going to get any easier waiting. Time won’t magically make bad news less damaging. In fact, it might get harder to share and cause even more drama by waiting.

Bad news doesn’t get better with age. It sours. Like milk in the sun, bad news gets rank and curdles if not shared.

So share it. 

Own it. 

Deal with the ramifications. 

And do it sooner rather than later.

5. It’s Okay to Be The Center of Attention

Most people don’t want to be the center of attention all the time. 

Sure, some people will talk your ear off, share story after story about their life, and never give a rip about what’s up with you. 

But most people want to share the attention. They want to play the conversation game with you. They want to hear your stories. They want to be reminded of stories of their own. And they want to take turns sharing their stories with you.

So get comfortable sharing your stories with others. 

Be the center of attention from time to time. 

Give people the chance to respect and admire you. 

Final Thoughts — Nice Doesn’t Have to Mean Nice

Back to my opening story, this guy calls me a “nice guy” with all the subtext of being a disrespected pushover. 

Though I challenged his assertion, I spent the next day wondering whether I should be more of an a-hole to more people. 

They say nice guys finish last, and I don’t want to finish last. Hell, I don’t even want to finish second.

But the very next evening gave me the opportunity to prove that being nice, being respected, and getting what you want can go hand-in-glove.

Leaving town for a weekend baseball tournament, we booked adjoining rooms at a Marriott—one for my wife and me, one for the kids. Except when we arrived, our rooms weren’t adjoining. I politely shared that I’d requested adjoining rooms because our children are young and need us nearby, but it was too late. There was nothing they could do. Everything was booked. 

My wife and I split the kids up and slept in separate rooms. Not ideal.

Speaking to the manager the next morning, she committed to helping me solve our problem. And after a long, respectful conversation, she found me a suite with an extra bedroom, canceled my other two rooms, and kept the same rate as my discounted room. In short, we were upgraded (big time) and saved over $400 for the weekend. 

Knowing how tough the hotel business is (my Dad is a professor of hotel and restaurant management), I offered to pay the full suite price so as not to have the hotel lose money on my room... Marriott has been too good to me over the years to see that happen. But the manager insisted saying, “I’ve worked for Marriott for 30 years and rarely meet someone with high status like yours that’s such a pleasure to help.”

The question of whether I should become more of an a-hole was answered. It simply isn’t necessary, and you can get a lot more out of life by acting respectfully, kindly, even nice without being a pushover. 

More so, by combining the strategies of leaders listed above—suggesting and leading instead of asking and following, standing your ground when others cross the line, trusting yourself to handle difficult situations, sharing bad news immediately, and getting comfortable at the center of attention from time to time—you’ll find yourself in the top 1% of people who are polite, respected, and get what they want. 

Nice guys don’t always have to finish last.

About the Author


Michael Mehlberg


I help high-achieving entrepreneurs organize their brain and schedule so they can organize their life and business.

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