Today’s Organization Man

Sports figures, politicians, and political pundits have all recently come out of the closet. Why no C.E.O.’s?

The issue has been heightened by the publication of the memoir of John Browne, BP’s former CEO, forced to resign when he was outed by The Daily Mail in 2007 for his relationship with a rentboy. According to The New York Times: “He thus becomes the first current or former chief executive of a major publicly traded corporation to acknowledge that he is gay.” (See, “Among Gay C.E.O.s, the Pressure to Conform.”)

The sociologist William H. Whyte published his classic study of The Organization Man in 1956 about how conformity had come to dominate corporate culture. Whyte’s book, along with Sloan Wilson’s “The Man In the Grey Flannel Suit” and C. Wright Mill’s “White Collar” described how in an era of unprecedented economic success, American business was forcing its executives into representing an hyper-idealized image of family life and dedication to corporate goals.

The absence of non-conformist C.E.O.’s today suggest that this image is still being strictly maintained at the top of the corporate hierarchy.

To be sure, there have always been a few exuberantly non-conformist businessmen, like Malcolm Forbes and Richard Branson, but they built their own businesses, striking out on their own. The absence of gay C.E.O.’s in established corporations suggests that we are still captured by a conformist picture of an ideal, imposing on ourselves a restrictive and sanitized image what it means to be human while being in business.



Speculations about confidence are everywhere in the news. Do we have confidence that Obama and his team can resolve the economic crisis? Will investor confidence rebound? And what about consumer confidence? Does each of us have confidence in our ability to survive the downturn? Will banks have the confidence to resume extending credit to businesses? Will businesses have confidence to plan for the future?

Confidence dwells in that shadowy place between fact and opinion. If we know something is true, we don’t need to have confidence it is. It’s a fact. On the other hand, mere opinion lacks the sturdiness and stamina of true confidence. Optimism is all too fragile. And yet, as our current economic and political situation constantly reminds us, confidence is essential to our recovery. So what is confidence? And how does it come about?

These are the questions that preoccupy me as I prepare for my three week vacation in the remote Buddhist kingdom of Bhutan. My plan is to post a series of reflections on these topics, starting now but continuing on my return. In the meantime, any questions or observations on the topic are very welcome. It would be great to have a lively dialogue on this topic.

But let me begin now with a few thoughts on self-confidence to get the ball rolling.


If We Ever Did

There is so much hope and fantasy surrounding Obama now, so much emphasis on his historic role, so many comparisons to Lincoln and FDR, such a stress on the mountain of problems he faces as he prepares to be sworn in, the person himself has been lost to view.  Through the welter of projections, the layouts, the interviews, the cover stories, the punditry, he has been rendered invisible.  And when he emerges, with or without his Blackberry, he will be safely encased in the Presidential bubble, his acts and statements endlessly spun, he will be invisible in yet other ways.  

Clearly we are in the midst of a national celebration.  He has become a totemic figure, an idol, a superman.

So what can we do about it?  To be sure, we will all — myself included — succumb to our dreams and join the celebration.  But then I think it will be important to keep reminding ourselves that we actually do not know him anymore — if indeed we ever did.  The focus will shift to the job:  the actions and the projects he undertakes, what he uses his power and influence to accomplish, what he actually does.

The really important thing is that, as the real Obama disappears from view, he himself does not get seduced into believing that he is more than he is.  Recent history suggests that this easily happens to Presidents.  Most advisors have their own agendas, their ways of using those they advise to bring about their own ends.  Few people speak truth to power.  And then few powerful people retain the capacity to believe in their own limitations and ignorance.

That will be the real thing to watch for.



No doubt it will, and the anticipation is mounting.  But the idealization — the glorification, in some places  — is mounting as well.  Some can’t wait for it to happen, some dread the moment, some believe it will never occur.  Obama, as Newsweek put, is “the one,” inheriting the legacy of every great historical figure:  Lincoln, FDR, Kennedy.  We seem to need a Saviour right now, and he is the inevitable candidate.

He himself, I suspect, it too smart to go for this, and consciously we are too.  But I suspect we don’t know how much we are coming around to buying into into it.  A number of pundits thought his choice of Hillary Clinton to head the State Department was the mistake, but that has died down amid the choruses of praise for most of his appointments.  More recently, his invitation to the evangelical minister Rick Warren to speak at his inaugural aroused a storm of protest among gays, but that too has died down, as we are reminding ourselves of the importance of tolerating a diversity of voices.  In one way, of course, Obama is showing really thoughtful leadership, but how long before he stumbles?  Or we allow him to stumble?  Or we want him to stumble?

Perhaps I am not the only one to have wondered if the widespread anxiety about his being assassinated masked an underlying desire for him to fall.  To be sure, inspiring and charismatic leaders have been assassinated, including, of course, Lincoln and Kennedy.  But it would be a mistake to underestimate the role of envy in politics, or simply the underside of idealization and hope.  In investing so much in Obama, we might wonder who are we protecting?

He will make mistakes, and we will be disappointed.  That simply can’t be helped, and with so many overwhelming problems to solve it is likely to happen soon.  But it is not too late now to think about protecting him and us from the backlash of denigration and rage that will accompany those failures and, perhaps, spoil the realistic leadership he is able to offer us.

Team of Rivals?


There is so much criticism of Obama’s choice of Hillary for Head of the State Department – and of others in his new team. Many believe he was influenced by Doris Kearn’s book about Lincoln’s cabinet, and very possibly he was. There is an argument to be made for keeping one’s rivals engaged and close to the decision making process. On the other hand, rivals can and often do fight to the death, or at least undermine their leader.

The key is strong and determined leadership — and that may be what Obama has confidence in being able to assert in bringing such powerful people into his cabinet.

There is another precedent and analysis that is relevant to this discussion: the role of Kennedy’s advisors in preparing for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion, and a few months later their response to the Cuban missile crisis. As analyzed by Irwin Janis, the Yale Sociologist, the team of advisors went way off course by virtue of “groupthink,” a process in which differences and debate were silenced and a consensus emerged without adequate testing. The next time around, as Soviet ships carrying missiles to Cuba approached, Kennedy encouraged vigorous debate in his team, a process that allowed him to think the problem through more thoroughly and arrive at an effective solution.

The team that Obama is putting together is very strong, a group of capable and independent thinkers – every bit as strong as the team Kennedy had around him over 45 years ago.  Obama appears to have confidence in his ability to tolerate conflict and dissent and to learn from it. Bush is notoriously conflict averse, no doubt a key reason he allowed Chaney essentially to take over his administration by operating behind the scenes and suppress dissent. Obama may see the benefits in the frank and full display of opinions as the run up to good decisions.

Maybe he wants a real team.