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Who Needs History When You Can Have Leaders

This transactional list
Of questions for winners,
This analysis
To abolish losers,
Is the mythical gist,
Blud und Eisen severe,
The Geistesgeschichte
Of California.

—The Red Crayola, “Born to Win (Transactional Analysis with Gestalt Experiments),” 1981.

Success and how to achieve it. Try to imagine the vast amount of time and human energy wasted pondering this topic, the money people have spent on books, tapes and seminars that teach “success” like some sort of 12-step program. Of course, the form of success is hardly mysterious—we learn it on the school playground. It is the content of success that is so elusive, the grail after which the American businesman so obsessively clamors. To him, “success” is a dark mystery, a matter of correct handshakes, of wearing the right color tie, of rehearsing the right shibboleths; it is a lifestyle, a state of grace gained by undergoing the ablutions of Positive Mental Attitude, by poring over the liturgy of pseudo-sacred texts like The Leader as Martial Artist, by stirring to the exhortations of Twenty-one Days to Unlimited Power. One anticipates the imminent establishment of The Church of Christ, Management Consultant. Until then we will have to make due with the ministrations of our lay technocracy.

Recently I happened across the psychological profiles of two men vying for a promotion within the management hierarchy of an international computer marketing company. Both men are currently area sales managers, and each has fixed his eye on the next echelon of power, the next rung on the ladder to the executive suite—yes, they both want to be regional sales manager. The job is not simply there for the taking. No, each candidate must first submit to a psychological investigation, a formality which the introductory blurb (unthreateningly titled “Development and You”) claims will “identify and assist in the development of the potential of the company’s people.”

The assessment consists of three parts: a personal interview, an intelligence test, and “a series of paper and pencil exercises.” All information gleaned from these examinations, the applicants are promised, will be analyzed “in a careful, professional manner in our efforts to assist you and your company.” The applicants are ensured of a debriefing at the conclusion of the process, at which time they can avail themselves of ample opportunity for “communicative interchange.” Perhaps of utmost concern to the applicants, they and their psychological profiles are guaranteed utmost confidentiality: “All of the information which you provide will remain in our offices and only we will have access to it.”

Oops, trust betrayed. When will we learn that even the experts lie? In this case I’m not referring to the fact that these very personal dossiers fell into the grubby hands of an unscrupulous Baffler writer, but to a much more outrageous breach: far from being competent to analyze the data surrendered by the applicants in the “careful, professional manner” promised, the psychologist presiding seems to be, upon examination of the applicants’ case write-ups, a charlatan, a mercenary interloper. But more about that in a moment. Let’s meet the contestants.

This being America, earning power doesn’t necessarily correlate to brain power.

At first glance, we seem to have come upon a rather fortuitous snapshot of the diversity of the American managerial elite. One of the applicants—we’ll call him Chad—comes to the table with essentially all the advantages that the suburban East Coast meritocracy can provide. He indicates that his father was a successful lawyer and an avid sailor. Like his siblings, Chad did well in high school and went on to attend an Ivy League college where he studied economics and business administration. His fondest memories of college days focus on his athletic career and care-free fraternity highjinks, where, no doubt, this 6’3” blond, blue-eyed stud must have cut some figure. Chad comes from a strong, stable family background where bedrock values of hard work and play figured prominently. Imbued with a deep affinity for the comforts of a prosperous home, he expresses a desire to reproduce those conditions for the next generation of Chads with his fiancée, a doctor (bonus points!).

Chad’s rival presents a more problematic case. This man—let’s call him Vern—has struggled to get what he has in achieved in life. His father was killed in the Korean War when Vern was very young, and his mother later remarried to a rather undependable, emotionally distant man with a drinking problem. In spite of these handicaps, Vern persevered. After an unremarkable high school career, he worked his way through a couple of junior colleges and ended up at a rather obscure state university, which in due course conferred upon him the distinction baccalaureus scientiae for his study of business administration. Thus endowed, Vern answered the call of salesmanship, eventually settling in the company for whom he currently works, where he built up a decade-long track record of proven sales ability. Vern’s prosperity might be said to exemplify the ideal American type of business success, the individualist who creates his own opportunities by dint of raw intelligence, hard work and determination to overcome adversity. But success has not come without a price—Vern expresses regret about the breakup of his first marriage and would like to spend more time with his current family.

While the dossiers fail to record the firmness of Chad’s handshake or the shine of Vern’s tassel loafers, they do provide the more quantifiable particulars. For example, our Ivy Leaguer boasts an impressive IQ of 126; but Vern’s no backwoods rube, clocking in at 115. This being America, earning power doesn’t necessarily correlate to brain power: Vern’s $54,000 a year salary will take him to Vegas a few more times than frat boy’s $47,000. Not to worry for Chad, though; his fiancée’s $85,000 salary looms on the horizon to help him whittle away the $320,000 mortgage on his Suburban Colonial. Vern’s mate takes home a modest $25,000, but one gets the feeling that’s the way Vern likes it.

These data tell us much, but the psychologist’s challenge is to divine those intangible, ineffable traits of personality that make one a leader among men—or in this case, that make a regional sales manager a leader among area sales managers. Subtle tools of discernment are called for. In the case of our psychologist they are: the Thematic Apperception Test, which presents respondents with pictures and requires them to compose narratives to accompany them; the Cornell Index, a list of 127 yes-or-no questions querying the respondents about their moods, emotions, and psychosomatic symptoms; and an exercise called “sentence completion,” wherein respondents are given a set of opening clauses from which they are to construct sentences.

Of all the exercises, the latter turns out to be the most important in determining the fate of the two applicants. In fact, the final evaluations submitted to their company—the document that gave the final word on their respective abilities to manage the sale of computer equipment on a regional basis—amounted to little more than a cobbling together of the phrases that each man wrote down in an exercise each probably completed quickly and thoughtlessly. Sentence fragments like, “I get down in the dumps when … ,” “I lose my temper if … ,” “She became irritated when they … ,” and “He suffered most from … ” are calculated to tease out responses that will inevitably be negative in nature. These are then dutifully transcribed by our “careful, professional” psychologist as potential emotional weaknesses of the candidate.

Other fragments in the exercise trawl for motivational deficiencies (“It’s fun to daydream about … ,” “In spare moments I … ,” “On weekends I … ,” “My greatest ambition … ”), inappropriate social or political attitudes (“Careers for women are … ,” “A husband should … ”), and indications of the extent to which the respondent is beholden to the strictures of bourgeois lifestyle (“Having to care for a house is … ,” “On vacation I like to … ”). The most telling fragments are those that directly engage the respondent on power issues in the work place. “I like the sort of worker who … ,” “Bosses seem to think … ,” “Company policy is … ,” “Taking orders … ,” “Having to work overtime … ”—these are nothing other than attempts to see how pliable, how willing to kiss ass, how unwilling to make waves, the candidate is. And then there is this corker—“A leader is … ”—which gives the candidate a chance to flex his rhetorical muscles.

If on the surface our little snapshot of professional aspiration promised to be an epic clash of two great stock figures, the Old Boy Network scion and the Can-Do Bastard, the data upon which the presiding psychologist ultimately judged the candidates proved to be less interesting. In fact, they were remarkably identical—and identically inadequate in revealing anything important about either man. Despite their divergent backgrounds and education the key information these two contenders related in the crucial sentence completion exercises was framed in exactly the same jargon. (There were amusing and illustrative differences which were not factored into the final evaluations: “Getting promoted ahead of a man … ” was intellectualized by Chad as “a natural course of events, and we must grow and learn to accept it,” while Vern answered more directly that it is “what I work for.” Chad remarks lightly that “Working in a room full of women … ” is “either quite pleasant, or a real pain in the neck,” while Vern comments more laconically that it is “different.”) Not surprisingly, the final evaluations of these two men are essentially the same. While both are considered to be competent for their current positions, their potential for further advancement is judged to be marginal. They are adequately qualified to remain in their present capacities, reads the final verdict, but every effort should be made to avail them of the proper “managerial firming.”

Responses could range from “I felt a mild mingling of amusement and disgust,” to “I lost control of my sphincter.”

The joke of the evaluations is that the men have been judged not so much on relevant psychological data—on those innate, definable characteristics that make each of us special in our own way—but rather on their failure to adequately think about or tailor their responses for the “expert” into whose hands they have unequivocally placed their professional fates. No doubt they have suffered at the hands of a quack. Nonetheless, one feels they are themselves partially culpable: by superficially assenting to yes-or-no questions about whether they sweat excessively, whether they become frustrated in traffic, or whether they envy anyone; by thoughtlessly assuming that such information will fly under the radar of an “expert” who is being paid (probably excessively) to warn their employer of the hidden human liabilities they present to their company; these two men have committed grave, albeit thoughtless, errors. They have failed a simple test of common sense, largely because they failed to recognize the examination for what it was: an opportunity to parrot the platitudes of ideological correctness. If they had read their Macchiavelli they would have known better than to answer that bullshit straight. When dealing with an industrial psychologist, honesty is hardly the best policy. Asked to complete the sentence fragment, “When I saw the boss coming I … ,” the most honest way to respond, depending on one’s relations to one’s superiors, could range from “I felt a mild mingling of amusement and disgust,” to “I lost control of my sphincter.” But as we have seen, such frankness hardly recommends one for advancement up the corporate ladder. Rather, the best policy in these situations is to tell them what they want to hear, and to make it believable.

To discover what it is that the gatekeepers of corporate hierarchy want to hear, we must turn to the exponentially burgeoning literature of management, and particularly to its most promising of subgenres, leadership studies. If you have ever perused in-flight magazines or watched late night television you are probably familiar with the more boneheaded titles of this particular discipline. Racy tracts covering everything from The Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun to Macchiavelli on Management are proffered up to the corporate mandarinate as ways of transforming their managerial everyday into the gut-check intensity experienced by their idealized counterparts who appear in the jiggling-camera/grainy-film television commercials. No less ridiculous, however, are the more sober attempts to frame the problem of leadership theoretically that are churned out by academics and think tank sinecurists. These range from the historically ambitious (Leadership for the Twenty-first Century) to the patently misbegotten (Leadership is Empowering People).

The vast majority of leadership literature is, to be generous, dry as dust. It is entirely fitting that Vern should spend his Saturday afternoons waxing his Camaro rather than curling up with The Wisdom of Teams. But it is interesting to note, after plowing through the ponderous leadership library, that these texts fall into two categories corresponding roughly to the two recent modalities of economic organization, Fordism and flexible accumulation.

The literature of the Fordist era reflects the humble origins of leadership theory as it grew up in the shadow of scientific management. Scientific management, with its routinization of labor tasks, its endless data collection, its inexorable drive for efficiency, sowed the seeds that flowered into a powerful middle class of well paid technocrats. But it also sowed the seeds of labor disaffection through the deskilling and excessive regimentation it imposed in the work place. It proved unable to deliver production from the vagaries of human volition. Nor could it deliver industry from the crises of overproduction and sagging profits that periodically plagued the early half of this century.

As a palliative to worker resentment early leadership experts suggested establishing highly visible avenues of promotion from the rank and file. This project placed a great premium on the identification and advancement of “natural” leaders, and its inaugural efforts were often laughably crude. For example, the leadership literature in vogue in the twenties and thirties, perhaps influenced by political philosophies across the Atlantic that spawned a fübrer and a duce, concentrated primarily on the identifying traits of the “great man,” like masculinity and moodiness.

It is difficult to determine whether this chaotic array of divergent and even contradictory theories helped to solve the structural problem of sagging profits, but this inconclusiveness has caused no disquiet among the theorists.

The sheer preposterousness of such early forays gave way to more sophisticated models as the sciences of psychology and sociology grew more complex and more opaque to the casual observer. Soon, the leadership library swelled with behaviorist studies, interaction-expectancy role theories, exchange theories, situational theories, contingency theories and so on. The Fordist leader’s role was to create what the author of Values Leadership simply calls the “ideological orientation” of the workplace. Other leadership writers talk about the creation of a “Central Belief System” or the inculcation of particular values that create a “culture” unique to a given corporation. Workers are referred to as “stakeholders,” suggesting that their “stake” in an enterprise extends in some mysterious but significant way beyond wages, benefits and more or less stable employment. Managers are exhorted to foster the growth and and education of their workers, meaning of course to enhance them as factors of production. Teams and management circles are suggested as tools to boost productivity, but, far from distributing downward any real power in the corporate structure, in practice they are techniques of assuaging and defusing the discontent of the work force.

It is difficult to determine whether this chaotic array of divergent and even contradictory theories helped to solve the structural problem of sagging profits, but this inconclusiveness has caused no disquiet among the theorists. In fact, precisely because their usefulness has defied such measurement, the phalanxes of industrial psychologists and other experts have thrived, pressing on into the nineties, articulating ever more elaborate theories. Their Sisyphean task represents not so much torment as it does job security. “The present emphasis on leadership stems from the perceived lack of leadership and a general malaise in our organizations,” begins yet another addition to the welter in 1992, assaying yet again a problem that is as irrelevant as it is insoluble.

What is going on in leadership theory is, of course, what has always gone on in the theorizing of the ruling classes: rationalizing the existing system of domination through whatever means present themselves, to demonstrate how the primacy of one group is good for everybody. While leadership literature has done demonstrably little to illuminate the problems of productivity, its pretensions have proved profoundly successful in its ideological function. As a variety of cultural upheavals and “legitimation crises” have shaken the foundations of most academic disciplines, business schools have emerged unscathed as the university’s last bastion of unquestioned metaphysical concepts, institutions dedicated to naturalizing the hierarchy of business-dominated society and propagating the ghostly mysteries of the free market. The palaver of empowerment serves as a warm, fuzzy fig leaf for the deep, institutional problems that plague our economy and our society. But of late things have changed.

Policy makers had seized upon service labor as a panacea for the problems of deindustrialization, and vast layers of middle management stared redundancy in the face.

“Crazy times call for crazy organizations!” shouts the brightly colored bookmark I snatched from the counter of one of Chicago’s remaining independent bookstores. “The abandonment of everything,” “disintegration,” “perpetual revolution”—these are key features of the latest mode of business organization (or if you prefer, business disorganization), heralded by seminar circuit evangelist Tom Peters in the new book for which this document is publicity. Lest such a message hearken our memories to the heady days of 1933, a whimsical image of the smirking author is pictured below, clad above the waist in business suit and tie, below the waist in florid beach jams. Far from threatening our freedom to enjoy attractive lifestyles, he seems to say, this time of flux promises unbounded opportunity for fun and profit—if, that is, you are an adept of the new “chaos.”

Peters is a man whose writing career traces the evolution of management literature from its obsession with the saccharine humanism of “excellence” into its bizarre present mode of full-on apologetics for flexible accumulation. He has made himself known largely as an idiosyncratic seminar speaker, given to passionate, bombastic oratory exhorting “excellence” as the paramount value of corporate management, a gospel codified in his 1982 best-seller, In Search of Excellence: Lessons From America’s Best-Run Companies. The premise of this treatise was a nuanced version of the well-rehearsed platitude that a company’s most important asset is its “people.” In the face of what he called “the current corporate malaise,” Peters took the engagingly humanistic line that the excellence of business organizations depended on creating lean, accessible management hierarchies, downplaying the impersonal and overly rationalistic nature of corporate bureaucracy in favor of empowerment on a more personal scale, and, above all, developing a strong corporate “culture” of well-defined “values.”

In Search of Excellence was essentially stale by the time it hit the bookshelves. In 1982, the manufacturing work force was in the midst of the biggest blood bath it had seen in a half a century: that year fully 44 percent of union labor submitted to wage freezes and scalebacks in contract renegotiations; only two years earlier such concessions had been unthinkable. By 1992, the year Peters’s blockbuster, Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties, was published, the corporate landscape had changed considerably. For a decade major U.S. corporations had been feverishly shedding domestic production facilities and investing in foreign capital markets, where low wages and the absence of troublesome regulation provided vast opportunity for profit. Not coincidentally, American industrial labor had become demoralized and lost most of its power, public policy makers had seized upon service labor as a panacea for the problems of deindustrialization, and vast layers of middle management stared redundancy in the face.

Liberation Management represents the passage of management literature from the modern to the postmodern, where it becomes safe to discuss the “demolition of the corporate superstructure” only after the demolition of historical narrative. Gone is all the warm, fuzzy claptrap of the last dispensation of management theory—management theory of the modernist variety, if you will. Gone is all the palaver about the employee as a “stakeholder,” a ridiculous and irksome notion to begin with. Gone is that damned Central Belief System that we worked so hard to get those chumps to swallow; gone are those silly “values” that we had such a hard time defining anyway. Good riddance to developing employee relationships based on expectation, participation and reward. Thank God well never have to hear the word “empowerment” again. Hell, while we’re at it why don’t we just get rid of history: it’s so fraught with moral baggage.

Done. Peters, in his florid new po-mo duds, has posited Man as Profit Center, subject to liquidation in an instant without warning. The instantaneity of fate defies diachronic narrative. There is no time or space for the underperforming profit center to contest his demise, much less to question the justice of the profit motive. It is foregrounded in the new economic order—it is, and it is happening now.

The November issue of The Atlantic Monthly shows just how useful the obliteration of history can be to business. Invited to reflect on the “information economy” with which the postindustrial world is fitfully coming to grips, management writer Peter Drucker chose, significantly, to frame his views in a preposterously distorted theory of recent history. The enormous violence of this century—the World Wars, the brutal struggles that signaled the end of colonialism, the ubiquitous violence that has accompanied the repression of social movements all over the world—none of these, in Drucker’s view, were significant. They had nothing to do with economic structures and institutions. This century has experienced “violence from above rather than violence from below”; it has been “inflicted on the human race by this century’s ‘charismatics’” and it has been absolutely “unconnected with the transformations of society.” Well whaddaya know about that.

A college-educated person should require only a few seconds to think of fifty or so reasons why Drucker’s thesis is wrong. But being wrong doesn’t matter here: Drucker is not so much an incompetent historian as he is a malevolent historian, calculatingly inventing a mythology for the Information Age that is designed to evacuate history of any meaning it might have independent of the glorious tale of the Dollar Triumphant. His wildly twisted historical approach reminds one of nothing so much as the European neofascists desire to rewrite the Holocaust out of history. It is an attack on memory, nothing more. And yet here is Drucker’s blather appearing as the cover story in an ordinarily responsible journal of ideas, being hailed as a serious addition to American cultural discourse.

The maintenance staff of the Information Age, Drucker warns, will “require a different approach to work and a different mindset” if they are to integrate themselves harmoniously in the new order. They will have to “change their basic attitudes, values and beliefs.” And foremost among the “values and beliefs” that must be eradicated are any sense of historical rootedness. We all must learn to “Thrive on Chaos,” like Tom Peters, to understand ourselves only as creatures of the immediate moment, to submit without reservation to the platitudes of the industrial psychologist.

Many of the names, characters, and incidents described in this essay are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.