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Day January 28, 2015

Haunted Empire

The “Stupid manager theory of company failure” (and its corollary, the “Smart manager theory of company success”[1]) remains the most popular, perhaps even the most universally accepted theory of management. Book after book, thoughtful article after article alludes to this theory and whenever a company is perceived to be under-performing, all fingers point to the leadership with demands for blood letting.

This is not a new phenomenon. When catastrophe strikes, as a thoughtful species, we have always asked for leaders to be sacrificed. In Europe during the Iron age leaders were sacrificed when crops failed. In South and Central America leaders were ceremonially tortured for similar reasons.

Of course most crop failures were due to weather phenomena and the anointed leadership had nothing to do with these causes. Nevertheless ancient correlation analysis would have revealed the pattern that good leadership meant good weather and bad leadership meant bad weather.

There was a balance to the downside however. When times were good the leadership enjoyed luxuries and praise. This was the essential deal societies made: we’ll keep you in riches and allow you to be idle as long as times are good but ritualistically slaughter you when times are bad. We’ll declare you “chief magical officer” and place all our faith in you. But, of course, if you fail, we will will be vengeful.

And so it goes in today’s corporate world. I’ve often said that corporate governance is medieval, or pre-scientific in its approach to understanding causality. That may be too generous. As far as the reward/punishment system (also known as Human Resources) it’s probably pre-neolithic. The luxuries and extravagance which we heap upon the leader provide abundant evidence. Leaders insist on these ironic “pay packages” and boards approve them because they know they can and will be ritualistically sacrificed if and when the mobs turn against them.

A manager would be a fool to accept even generous pay given the risk, actually near certainty, of ritualistic slaughter. They demand and are unquestionably given absurd pay that has no relationship to performance. Such pay has no relationship to performance because it isn’t designed to reward performance but to account for the risk of arbitrary and very public sacrifice. Boards (and hence shareholders) are deliberately hiring a scapegoat for sins as yet unknown. Luxury and violence are thus finely balanced in what is called “Executive Search”.

Notes:
  1. As well as the “Smart/Stupid leader theory of national success/failure” []