Archive for June 22nd, 2007

Business experts always have an air of fantasy about them. Many give watered-down accounts of outdated psychology like the Meyers-Brigg personality test. Almost all give the impression that the writer’s experience of the modern office is either scant or years in the past. I mean, what other field would still consider a piece of simplistic hypocrisy like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People a significant work for seventy years? But while their sense of dislocation fascinates me, business experts can be dangerous and offensive — and never more so than when they are promoting the modern cult of the leader.

According to this cult, proving yourself a leader is the way to advance your career. If you are not a natural leader — whatever that means — then you should try to become one by imitating various role models. Some experts go so far to suggest that you should copy the fashion sense and behavior of those higher in the corporate hierarchy. The goal is to become someone that others look up to and admire so that they follow you willingly (that is, are willing to sacrifice their personal time for your business goals). Should you not appreciate this goal, the subtext always seems to be, something is deeply wrong with you (presumably, that you’re a natural follower instead).

Where do I start explaining what is not only misguided but also deeply insulting about this sales pitch? Perhaps the point to make first is that this advice is based no more solidly on research than creationism, cryptozoology, or any other junk science. Are some people natural leaders? Or is that just code for being aggressive and extroverted? Can you really become one by imitation? Or does such imitation simply flatter your models and identify you forever as a follower? What percentage of people who use these techniques succeed, and what percentage fail? The failure rate must be extremely high, since by definition there are far fewer leadership positions than candidates for them. And how does the undisguised opportunism advocated fit with the more laidback, flatter corporate structures of today?

For that matter, who says that people are just looking for a leader to follow? Many jobs in modern business, up to (and maybe especially) most management, executive, and officer positions, can be done adequately by the average eighth grader. Beyond the inevitable division of labor and the coordination that it requires, very few people require a leader — and those that do aren’t people you want to hire anyway, because they are probably untrustworthy.

Similarly, while it’s true that people are often looking for a higher cause to give meaning to their lives, most of them don’t expect to find it at work. They put in hours of over-time because doing so seems a job requirement and they’re afraid of being fired if they object. Just because they put the best face on such demands, that doesn’t mean they enjoy them. Most people know when they’re being exploited, and having a leader won’t inspire most of them to do anything except hide their resentment better. Generally, it’s only very young workers or those very high up in the power structure who have a mental stake in a business. For the rest, it’s a income, a means to an end.

Nor does the average person’s relative indifference to advancing their career indicate inferiority in intelligence and talent compared to those who are dedicated careerists. Some people prefer to stay in a position where they are competent or fulfilled rather than advance. Many prefer to carve out their own small empire at right angles to the main power structure, like the quartermaster or surgeon on a 19th Century sailing ship. Others see those in the main power structure as enemies, and more or less actively oppose them — unionists, for example. An even greater number seek meaning from something other than work.

But the worst thing about those indoctrinated into the cult of leadership is that their beliefs encourage an arrogant oversimplification. Ambition, to cult members, is the only legitimate aspiration. From that position, it is a short step to justifying everything you do and viewing others as stupider and less talented than you are, and yourself as a superior being (or, at least, a demi-god in training).

Such a world view may be comforting to you when you have doubts at night, but, during the day, it’s also likely to make you a damned unpleasant person to be around. I wonder, too, how many cultists have defeated their own ambitions because they made their goals a little too obvious and displayed their contempt for others just a little too openly?

Perhaps the rest of us should thank the business experts for making it easier to detect their cult members. However, I think this service is vastly outweighed by the disservice the experts do by encouraging the cultists in their worst behavior by flattering them with comparisons to samurai warriors and heroic Antarctic explorers, and by pretending their naked ambition is anything except the rather paltry egotism that it so often is.

And should you be someone attracted to the cult of leadership, take a moment to consider how many assumptions that are either unexamined or at best proved by anecdotal evidence are contained in the key message of the cult of leadership. Personally, before I guided my future by such experts’ advice, I would like more proof that it was well-thought out and based on solid evidence. Otherwise, I may be making plans on a very shaky foundation — foundations that could very easily crumble beneath me and leave me unhappy and, because of my arrogance, very much alone.

Of course, the experts would have an explanation ready for such failure. Probably, they’d say I didn’t try hard enough, or didn’t apply their ideas correctly. That’s the beautiful thing about closed systems of belief — for the faithful, they defy debunking.

All I know is that I wouldn’t do a relatively unimportant thing like buy a washing machine from a clerk who sounded like the so-called business experts. So why would I buy a philosophy of life from them?

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