The Powers That Be

Britain has been described as a country that has succeeded in spite of its leaders. Ever felt you are working for an organisation like that?

I am.

I won’t let my blog turn into a whinge. That is one of the (very few) constraints I have placed upon myself. If you don’t like your job, go find another one. For the record, when left alone to do it, I absolutely love my job. Not all of it, obviously, but there are certainly large parts of it I would do as a hobby.

This is more about corporate structure. Leadership comes in many forms – charismatic, administrative, inspirational. I’m not about to attempt a discourse on leadership: there are many far better qualified than I for that. My observation, however, is that there comes a level in every organisation I have worked for – corporate, amateur, charity, vocational – above which it seems necessary to be an arsehole as well as, or often as opposed to, a leader.

Is it necessary for senior leaders to be arseholes?

I kind of want to leave it there, to be honest. Obviously the question is posed to answer itself in the affirmative. Are all those at Board-, Director- and C-level arseholes? Probably not. I worked at that level for a while. Does the fact that I found it unbelievably contrary to every part of my nature – most especially ethically – save me from being an arsehole? Or does that just make me a wuss?

Watching interaction at that level – especially in a B-to-B context – brings me to the conclusion that being an arsehole is, at least, an advantage, if not an outright requirement. Decent human beings don’t seem to succeed at this level.

I am going to have to define “arsehole” in this context, am I not?

One characteristic is being passive-aggressive to those below you on the old slippery ladder. “Do you think it is acceptable to do that?” implying it isn’t. “Who instructed you to do that?” with the full knowledge that you were expected to act independently. That wonderful turn of phrase that implies you fucked up while ostensibly asking a perfectly ordinary question. Being unavailable and then asking, “Why didn’t you run this past me first?” falls into this category. Especially when you’re on a deadline.

Another would be giving incomplete instructions and then expecting specific results. This is a slippery one, because people at this level feel the need to be “strategic”. Now I agree that strategic thinking is the opposite of granular thinking. It must be. But when somebody has a specific outcome in mind but chooses not to communicate details in the name of strategic thinking, they should not expect the outcome to match every detail of their expectation.

Not mentioning a particular outcome is essential until after the deadline and then demanding to know why you “didn’t think it important”.

Just being plain rude. Arrogant. Unreasonable.

Question is: is this behaviour indicative of a person who can successfully lead an organisation? Is it like a symptom – like people who have what it takes happen to also act in this way? Somehow the positive effect they have on an organisation outweighs the obvious negative impact of their behaviour?

And would the converse then be true: would I be more successful if I behaved like an arsehole? Should I be encouraging my children to be selfish, arrogant, bullying and rude because it will bring reward?

I used the word “ethically” above quite deliberately. I’m afraid behaving like a successful senior executive is very often morally inexcusable. Not (necessarily) in a criminal sense, but definitely at the level of relationships and human decency. For that reason I won’t do it. That sort of success isn’t worth it.

4 thoughts on “The Powers That Be

  1. An even more intriguing ‘build’ would be to explore why? Why do these executives behave – or feel they need to – behave in this way? Who, exactly, decided it was a good idea?

    Another question – is to perhaps ask yourself what is your responsibility in challenging the status quo? Or are you simply a mirror reflecting the image as it presents itself?


    1. I think the time I spent on the board of a company thoroughly disillusioned me. Before, and at the time, I did want to challenge this idea that being an arsehole is somehow a necessary component of executive leadership. I would like to think I was somewhat less of an arsehole than others around me.

      The point is, though, that I effectively failed as a board member. I don’t know if that was because I am not an arsehole. I do know I found the position unbelievably stressful and that my anxiety levels rose unacceptably as a result. I am not convinced this means I cannot hold executive leadership positions in future; it is still my intention to do so. But I think the idea of changing the system from within died in me during that time.

      Keep in mind, though, that this rant of mine was not particularly well-thought-through or well-written. I’m not at all sure all senior executives are arseholes, nor am I sure being one necessitates being the other. I’m also a little tired of over-using the word arsehole in this post…

      1. Indeed. Arseholes are like opinions… Or is it that opinions are like arseholes?

        That said, I am intrigued by your comment, ‘The point is, though, that I effectively failed as a board member.’ I wonder how helpful the word ‘failed’ is here? And what role your binary reasoning may, or may not, have played in you coming to this conclusion.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *