In a 1906 letter to H. G. Wells, the philosopher William James (1842–1910), wrote that: “The exclusive worship of the bitch-goddess Success is our national disease.” Aldous Huxley helped focus this a bit more in saying: “The point of William James’s statement is that reaching Success demands strange sacrifices from those who worship her.”
William James was a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher who developed the philosophical perspective known as radical empiricism. He also wrote many influential books on the science of psychology, the psychology of religious experience and mysticism, and the philosophy of pragmatism. He certainly was being pragmatic in his above noted quote.
Of course success is defined differently for each of us. Some may find success is raising their children. For others it might come from living in a particular neighborhood. But for those of us (the majority I’m sure) whose self-worth was/is defined by our careers then success simply means climbing as high as we can on the corporate ladder. What goes without saying is that to move up the corporate ladder one must learn to be a leader not a manager.
In the forward to his 1962 book The Pyramid Climbers, Vance Packard tells us the focus of his book and talks about the type person who strives to be a leader and reach the top of the ladder–the management pyramid–the ultimate success in business.
“We are about to enter a veiled and curious world. The object of this exploration is to bring back relevant information about the breed of people who climb modern pyramids. Members of this breed are the hustling, well-packaged executives who pitch their camps on ever higher ledges of the pyramids of business power. They devote their adult lives to assaulting the slippery, crevice-ridden slopes of the pyramids in the hope of arriving at a peak, or at least a ledge near a peak. They learn the secret lore of negotiating difficult passages. They sharpen some very special traits, such as maze-brightness, which help them survive and advance. Their desire is to be touched by Success, the goddess who stands guard on the mist-covered peaks. Success permits only a few select climbers to enter her cloud clubs. She has been known to be both featherheaded and ruthless in her choices. She keeps changing the requirements she expects of a climber as he progresses toward her realm.”
One of those special traits be talks about above is “maze brightness.” This is a behavioral sciences concept defined as: “becoming able to find new paths through the maze toward the reward-point through sheer repetition.” Explains why many management teams will do what Einstein defined as insanity, i.e., “doing the same thing over again somehow expecting a different result.” It also explains why many sociopaths get to the top–their bad behavior has worked to their advantage at many points in their past so they keep doing it.
Of course reaching the top on a particular organization’s management pyramid is dependent to a large degree on how many layers or ledges there are to climb and where on the pyramid you start the journey. The number of ledges—or steps—in a company’s hierarchy varies of course with the company’s size and philosophy of organization. Some like tall, slender pyramids, with only a few people under each leader; others prefer short, squat pyramids. But no matter what its manifestations, the hierarchic pyramid structure as diagrammed on paper is the company’s hierarchy of power. And fighting one’s way up the hierarchy of power is what Huxley meant when he said that “reaching Success demands strange sacrifices from those who worship her.” That means that the journey will bring out both the best and the worse of anyone striving to get to the top. Not everyone is cut out for that journey despite almost everyone wanting to take it.
I liken the competition that’s engaged on the climb up the pyramid of business power as intensive as the competition between gladiators in the arenas of ancient Rome–it is a life but not literal death struggle.
So how does one make it to the top of the pyramid? Business magazines would have us believe all you have to do is follow a few simple steps and success is yours. Google “how to be a success in business” and you’ll come up with 100’s of thousands of websites with foolproof recommendation. For example, I just picked one–a Forbes magazine article that advised that the following four actions/behaviors were a perfect strategy to get to the top. They are: be innovative, make recommendations, raise your hand and (the best of all) support and mentor your fellow peers.
Let’s take a look at these recommendations. First, “innovation’ is a tough thing to define. It’s another of those highly subjective “skills” you’ll find on most performance review forms. It’s up there with “be proactive” or “think outside the box” as one of the most useless and annoying business buzzwords that everyone worships yet can’t really measure.
Make recommendations? Of course, whether that gets you anywhere is highly dependent on the receptivity of the management team. At the very least making repetitive suggestions will probably label you a know-it-all. Also, you don’t make any recommendations if your boss is a sociopath. A cardinal sin is committed if you, in any way, allude that you have a better idea than the boss. Secondly, a true sociopath will steal the idea and make it his anyway.
“Raise your hand” is an interesting one. To volunteer–I assume. To volunteer for some task nobody else wants to do? Trust me you’ll get enough “action items” in your career that you don’t need to go asking for more–this is pure suicide. It could also mean asking questions–showing initiative. Yet another of those pesky subjective performance review skills. Remember what I noted above: “A cardinal sin is committed if you in any way allude that you have a better idea than the boss.” Also asking too many questions can set yourself up to be judged as having no clue. Now I’m not saying that asking questions is all that bad because many people go through their entire career not ever really having a clue what’s going on because they are petrified of asking a “stupid question.” These type people really need to ask more questions. However, the real key is that one must think before speaking.
The last one, support and mentor your fellow peers, while a noble thing to try and do, completely depends on how well your peers support and mentor you–doesn’t it? Read my book Puttin’ Cologne on the Rickshaw if you want guidance on why this won’t necessarily work and why it can be a suicidal thing to do. The workplace is full of “games people play” to get to the top–getting too close to people may set yourself up as to be victimized. Remember, it is a dog-eat-dog world out there in the workplace.
Ok, so I’ve picked apart a major business publication’s guidance. What’s my guidance you may be asking? I have my own five point strategy that should help you make it to the top. It’s based on taking the best leadership skills and simply practicing them no matter the position you’re in on the pyramid.
First, it’s important to know is how to tell the difference between repetitive nonsense and meaningful thinking. In other words you must know the difference between being efficient and being effective. Managers are efficient–leaders are effective. Don’t be fooled by all the self-serving “pyromaniacs” out there that thrive on crisis. Learn to discern between the true organization-threatening crisis and those that are “staged” so a sociopath can feed his narcissistic ego.
Second, there’s the old saying: “Show-up, keep-up, shut-up.” That’s what two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange said is the job of a professional golf caddy. And caddying is what you’ll spend a lot of your career doing. It’s sort of self-explanatory. In other words: Come to work every day and “shut up and color.” This is the part of getting to the top that means that whatever your job, do it well, on time and as accurately as possible.
Next, “hone your problem solving skills.” This isn’t about having all the answers–it is about using the scientific method to solve problems. And solving problems is what you’ll spend a great deal of your career doing. One of the biggest sins in business is the tendency to jump to conclusions. Find the root-cause to a problem and don’t chase symptoms. That’s because a good leader solves problems the first time–so they don’t come back and bite you. It’s the old efficient v. effective thing again. A corollary to this is “don’t be swayed by groupthink.” If there’s ever a time to “make recommendations” it’s to speak up and point out the bullshit that can be the result of a group of people getting together to solve a problem. Remember, managers suffer from situational amnesia–true leaders don’t.
Also, be empathetic of your fellow co-workers. That doesn’t mean kowtow to them but be genuinely concerned for others. That’s as close as you’ll come to “support and mentor your fellow peers.”
Lastly be “authentic and genuine” in all that you do. To be “authentic” means “being of undisputed origin.” Always make sure everyone knows where you’re coming from. Don’t try to delude people–only speak the truth. Practice the “no bullshit” rule. Admit when you don’t know something–don’t pretend. On the other hand being “genuine” means “to truly be what something is said to be.” In other words “say what you’ll do and then do what you say.”
Einstein once said, “If A is a success in life, then A equals x plus y plus z. Work is x; y is play; and z is keeping your mouth shut.” No truer words where ever spoken when talking about the workplace however, you must qualify this statement. The chances of being a success greatly relies on your ability to bring the variable “y” as close to zero as you can. This is good advice if you want to get to the top–there is no work-life balance at the top of the pyramid. This is where the “bitch goddess” traps you.