The following are approximately the first 1000 words from Chapter 8 of Jonar Nader’s book,
How to Lose Friends and Infuriate People.
Another dirty word:
Ambition – power without mercy
I once heard a CEO of a large organisation criticise military establishments for their obvious reverence for visible ranking. This sparked my curiosity about the benefits of displaying one’s rank through pips and stripes. What does such categorisation do? Is it there to inflate one’s ego, or to communicate the reporting structure? Is it a way to seek respect and discipline? Does it keep subordinates eager? Or is it so steeped in history and tradition that it has lost its meaning?
The CEO presented a cogent argument about ‘respect for all’, not just for the chosen few. He advocated equality, and criticised the ways in which military personnel flaunted their rank.
The slight ring of truth in his argument dissipated when I started to realise the hypocrisy of his statements. Upon close examination, it was clear that he flaunted his position in more ways than his accused. His business card advertised his impressive title; his name was followed by a series of letters signifying his academic qualifications and industry associations; his supposed equality afforded him a much-desired parking space for his chauffeur-driven car; his spacious office was adorned with certificates and photographs; support staff catered to his whims; and he enjoyed a myriad of corporate accessories and fringe benefits that other comrades lusted for, including exclusive memberships, first-class travel, and his own washroom!
The authority he wielded attracted sycophants desperate for his approval. His influence and lifestyle had a glossy exterior that many found attractive and desirable. His executives seemed keen to acquire the trappings of the ivory tower. They focused more on climbing the corporate ladder than on engaging in an exciting industry — all the while aware that their skills and intellect (or lack thereof) had very little to do with their prospects for promotion.
This does seem to be a harsh way to describe his managers. One would think that among them were a few keen, enthusiastic professionals. Yes, there were but, typically, such individuals did not last long. Their refusal to ‘play the game’ landed them in hot water.
This destructive game lured executives with the promise of a possible stint on the throne, although anyone who threatened the incumbent received the fatal sting. He expected his followers to be ambitious — but not too ambitious.
The pecking order was re-set every time the boss went away on business. A much-awaited memo would give all the right signals to those who knew how to read the cryptic clues. It would decree who was to ‘fill in’ for the boss. Interestingly, complete power was never vested in just one person. A typical memo would read, ‘Jane has my functional authority, while Bob has my financial authority…’
In my developing years I had the misfortune of working with just such a person of discriminating power. I was too young to know better at the time. However, I became puzzled when, one day, the operations manager came into my office and moved the large pot plant to the outside of the glass wall. ‘What are you doing that for?’ I asked. ‘Sorry, Jonar. Your level does not allow you to have a plant in your office.’
That must have been a tribal hint to which I was completely oblivious. Whatever I did to trigger that pettiness was still threatening the boss, because a few weeks later the telephone that I had inherited was replaced. I was not permitted to use it because it contained a calculator, which in those days was a serious executive perk reserved for the privileged few. I recall seeing it thrown into a box full of junk in the storeroom. It was better for it to sit there and collect dust than to have a lesser ranked employee use it. To top it off, I had to buy a calculator at my expense because when I requisitioned one from the company, I was told that my choice was limited — managers at my level were not permitted to order calculators that contained more than twenty-one buttons. A few months later, the round table in my office was replaced with one that was slightly smaller in diameter.
Although we executives did not wear our rank on our sleeves, there was no doubt about our pecking order.
Climbing the ladder
In order to understand how ambition interconnects with rank, I undertook part of my research at a military air-force base where I met sergeants and officers, including pilots and the Air Commodore.
One of my visits was especially memorable. An officer and I were lured onto the tarmac by the roar of the F-111s. Within seconds, two airmen ran towards us shouting. They did not dare touch us because they did not know who we were. So they stopped, saluted, as befitted their rank, and asked us to move back. I did not pay attention because my eyes were fixed on a jet that was making its final approach to land. A third airman arrived. Realising that he was the more senior officer, he told us to ‘get the hell out of there’ in crude and no uncertain terms.
By this time, the F-111 had just landed on my right. The officer grabbed our arms and abruptly dragged us away. I felt a rush of adrenalin. What was all the panic about? As the jet taxied past us and made a sharp right turn, we hit the ground. Just over our heads the scorching after-burner put everything into perspective. I felt the heat-wave from those merciless flames and realised that we could have been burnt to a cinder.
Strangely enough, despite the intensity of that near-death experience, and the many fascinating conversations I had with all sorts of military personnel during my research, the one event that made the biggest impression on me was a conversation I had with a sergeant. I asked him about his career and what he was doing to elevate his status. To my dismay, he said that he had no desire to become an officer. I could not understand his response. ‘Why are you serving in the air force if you do not want to be promoted?’ I asked. I could not understand why he was so uninterested in furthering his career. Was he unhappy? Did he lack ambition? Was he complacent? I must admit that my esteem for him plummeted. For years I remained disappointed by his response. I was under the impression that the whole purpose of working within such an environment was to seek promotion and climb the ladder.