Column: If We Must Have Scandals And Dramas…

If We Must Have Scandals And Dramas…
Column by Elena Yang

At least, let’s glean some lessons from the political and business news of this week. 

I am struck, yet again, by the cosmic distance between the top management and the rest of the working crowd. 

And as usual, a good portion of this distance is caused by the monstrous ego of the manager/leader. 

But ego cannot flourish without the implicit or explicit consent of its audience. 

(I did plan to continue sharing more thoughts on diversity/multiculturalism. However, sometimes, current news demands immediate attention.

And lessons from fresh news can be valuable. I will get back to diversity next time … unless… .)

The particular political item this week involves the personae in General Petraeus’ story and the particular business news item involves the recent exit of Microsoft “general” Sinofsky, chief for developing Windows products. 

Mr. Sinofsky resigned only two weeks after the release of the much better reviewed new Windows software, Windows 8.

I really don’t give a toss about the private lives of any leaders, managers, generals, or others for that matter. The argument that a person’s dubious judgment in aspects of private life reflects upon that person’s conduct of official duties is unproven at best.  

However, there do seem to be particular aspects where the lack of judgment is manifested.

What I have taken away from the Petraeus soap opera are: 

  • Leaders, managers, generals, presidents, star athletes … they are just human beings with all the accompanying foibles. 
  • Corruption is the twin of power. 
  • Propped up “heroes” fall particularly badly. 

The top managers/generals are usually surrounded by support staff that caters to their whims. People in such an insulated environment, and without meaningfully interacting with lower ranked people who carry out the actual work, are bound to provide or experience some aberrant outcomes. 

As the insulation thickens, the ones who possess power are compelled to want more power … to bolster the insulation.

These layers of insulations are tantamount to “psychological prison walls.” The walls themselves eventually become the object, which one defends, and those outside the walls are to be defended against. 

(Washington Post Sunday edition has a revealing story about 4-star generals’ perks:

As soon as walls are erected – drawing the boundary – there are “who’s in” and “who’s out” tussles. Inevitably, there are outsiders who would use any means, usually money, to “get in.” 

So, we have the Kellys in the Tampa area who found ways to befriend General Petraeus, General Allen, and their entourages. Why a socialite would be given so much access to military personnel and documents is beyond most people’s comprehension. 

Why would 4-star generals get involved in Ms. Kelly’s sister’s custody fight? (Please Google this matter; it’s too sordid and convoluted for me to try to recap here.) 

Such petty use of one’s powerful personal connections for personal gain isn’t news. We’ve all encountered pretentious upstarts, albeit on a much smaller and less consequential scale, in everyday organizations. 

There are those mediocre students, employees, and even volunteers who manage to gain access to top level decision-makers, and these minions become drunk with special privileges.

This is part of the reason why a “small” matter of infidelity in the downfall of General Petraeus can so quickly reveal some ugly inner workings of the top levels of military power. 

And throughout the still-unfolding scenario, no one is paying sufficient attention to the impact on the fighting troops on the ground. Talk about cosmic distance!

The moral for managers and leaders is: Make sure there are multiple and varied channels by which one interacts with and learns from people in the lower ranks. I cannot stress this principle enough, and so I will repeat this mantra whenever possible. 

By the way, one of the proposals for “correcting” some of the problems uncovered within the top military echelon is … Ethics Training! Really?! If these adults still need to learn the meaning of a marriage vow, to not waste time on frivolity, to not think themselves infallible (how do you train that?!) … etc., then, how in the world did they reach this high level? 

And for heaven’s sake, how does the chief spook fail to understand he can’t use unsecured Internet connections for sensitive messages?! Seriously, people. Ethics?

Eron’s ethics statement was well written; how did that work out for them? A year’s worth of coaching on humility is far more pertinent! This holds true for civilian managers as well.

We use many military metaphors to describe everyday organizations, such as, “strategy,” “subordinate,” “commands from executives,” etc. 

Not surprisingly, we also see many organizations’ executives act as if they are generals. They are impatient with processes needed to achieve results; they don’t really desire challenges from “subordinates;” they surround themselves with an “inner circle” of operatives as gatekeepers.  

Here is a paradoxical aspect of ego: If I think my ideas are superior, why would I need layers of protection?

The story associated with the recent departure of Microsoft’s Sinofsky, shortly after Windows 8 was released, affirms the case of a maverick growing unchecked into that “asshole of a boss.” 

Mr. Sinofsky is often compared with Steven Jobs; both could be caustic and prone to treat colleagues in a disdainful manner. It is tricky to strike a balance between welcoming innovative thinkers and tempering egotistic showoffs. This is a topic worthy of several posts, and I will address it in due course. 

Presently, I will just pose a question for leaders or managers who are compared to these oversize figures: Would you be one ounce less effective if you were to observe basic civility?

Lastly, leaders need followers; heroes need worshipers. Ours is a society obsessed with hero figures and the myth of rugged individualism. 

Such attitudes are partly responsible for our collective tolerance for mavericks however uncivil and rude; we put them on pedestals.  

Remember Lance Armstrong, the now-fallen 7-time champion of Tour de France? We find out, oh horror, that these beings on the pedestal are humans after all! 

Till Dec.2,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.


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