Breeding mediocrity to build fiefdoms
The other day, I was reading about the ancient story of Sage Ashtavakra. Sage Ashtavakra was cursed by his own father Kahoda. The story goes that one day when Kahoda was conversing with Ashtavakra’s mother about the Vedas, Ashtavakra spoke from his mother's womb, and corrected his father. Rather than being appreciative of his bright son, Kahoda was annoyed and cursed Ashtavakra “May this over-smart child of mine be born deformed with eight twists in his body”.
Envy and insecurity
This ancient story brings to the fore the envy of a father for his son, the envy of a mentor for his mentee, the envy of a guru for his shishya, the envy of a boss for his subordinate. What happened to Ashtavakra is what happens when the coach/mentor, who must nurture talent, becomes insecure of his bright subordinate/ employee/ mentee. The brilliance that Ashtavakra represents is prevalent in few but when they make themselves known, they face great hostility, especially their bosses.
Envy is a universal phenomenon. Gurcharan Das in his book “The Difficulty Of Being Good” describes the origins and manifestations of envy in the two mythological characters Duryodhana and Dhritarashtra in Mahabharata and also the difference between Duryodhana’s envy (which was explicit and to an extent simple and justifiably bordering on over-ambitiousness) and Dhritarashtra’s envy (which was hypocritical and masked and therefore more dangerous). Das then goes on to explain Kant, Freud and various other views on envy and brings out the dilemmas of the Mahabharata. It is indeed interesting that we easily find the Kahodas, Duryodhanas and Dhritarashtras at our workplaces today.
So, is there a pattern to how an insecure boss behaves?
He insists on absolute control over everything in the department. He won't delegate any meaningful authority. He employs an iron hand. He doesn't trust anyone. He has few allies and those are formed into a tight little clique strongly obligated to his authority and are dependent on it. He constantly interferes in the work of his staff and second guesses are the order of the day. He constantly defends his position and every question or hint of criticism is treated as a challenge to his worth and authority. He consistently doubts he has the respect of his associates and he frequently reminds you who is the boss. He keeps changing the goal post to keep his subordinates off balance.
Credit and Blame
He resists making decisions which would mean endless studies and return trips to the drawing board. He would bring in consultants to “think” instead of growing thinkers within the company because consultants won’t threaten his authority. He will climb the wall when subordinates make a mistake but when he fouls up, he will blame it on someone else; he is who we call the classic “Teflon coated” manager. He is who we know as the “very successful” boss who is highly skilled at taking credit when things go well and not only deny blame when things head south, but actively finds heads to roll.
The Superficial and the Sublime
The culture an insecure manager perpetrates is about “appearances”. It need not “be” good, it should “look” good and by the way this guy can make anything/anyone look good. He actively promotes the mediocre (both stuff and managers). His insecurity is contagious, so he breeds more managers like himself either because his behaviour pattern looks like his success formula for survival and growth to his people or because of the perpetual learned helplessness generated by his behaviour patterns in the organization.
He is also very subtle. He makes sure he is politically correct always, in what he says during his speeches but make no mistake, he will manage to get his nephew a job under the table before you know it. He is also the one who will give talks about fairness, ethic, and corporate governance and will talk about the dos and don’ts of leadership to mask the behaviour patterns I discussed above, quite successfully. He is arguably bright and has honed his skills at the game by playing it over a longish period of time.
He poisons an organization slowly and creates a mix of managers - the mediocre and the schizophrenic. The best talent of his organization turns schizophrenic while he plays the credit and blame game. This manager’s “think” or “do” dilemma splits him and then he suffers a conflict and commotion within. The insecure manager breeds entropy too. A typical subordinate who survives this boss is either ambivalent and/or diplomatic, a mercenary, another helpless bright guy who is not easily employable, or a mediocre manager who over the years has grown comfortable in his seat.
Interestingly enough breeding mediocrity in organizations finds similarities with a not so popular socio- cultural concept - Mediocracy. In an article by Fabian – he describes a new model of society called mediocracy, as in: the rule of the mediocre, the triumph of style over substance. Mediocracy has two approaches to transforming culture. Dumbing down involves coarsening and trivializing output to the point where it becomes stupefying rather than enlightening. Sexing up involves wrapping up the trivial and vacuous in jargon and technique, in order to render it sufficiently opaque for its vacuity to be concealed. Often both qualities are combined, resulting in a low-grade product with a veneer of esoteric complexity.
The questions we need to ask are - Are we breeding organizations where there is discipline but little room for creativity and space to think differently? Are we breeding organizations with only “do” managers rather than “think/add value” managers? Are we breeding mediocrity instead of nurturing thought leadership in our organizations? Are we building fiefdoms to rule instead of organizations to nurture?
Insecure managers create insecure and mediocre organizations. The story of Ashtavakra goes on to depict how later Sage Ashtavakra not only avenged his father's humiliation but he also brought his father back to life. Kahoda was lucky to have a son like Ashtavakra and so are organizations that have Ashtavakras in them.
Effective leaders have been found to encourage dissent precisely because it forces clarification of assumptions and ideas. Good leaders appreciate diversity of perspective and intuitively demonstrate constructive controversy as a process, for they appreciate the importance and potential of their Ashtavakras. Organizations need to understand this and leverage the brilliance and vigour of their Ashtavakras to innovate, to bring about and spur positive change to sustainably grow.