I’ve seen it a thousand times in business—rejection of an idea or a person by virtue of corporate status. The powers that be have authority, so they must be right. Right? Sure, the world’s flat too. What they have is the fraud of authority, the power to be a bully by the virtue of their title. A title, however, makes no one a leader.
It is usually easier to lead with a title than without. Leading without a title is one of the most difficult and courageous things anyone can attempt. Often, leaders without titles arise in the midst of a crisis—a crisis like a bully’s ego trip.
Dealing with a bully is not especially complicated or difficult. It merely takes nerve. If you work for such a person, do not submit. Fight for your dignity. Bullies destroy dignity and they destroy companies. If you are a leader, you must not allow them to operate under you. As a leader you should try to reform the bully—attempt to make a human connection that explains why people deserve respect. If this does not work, then you must fire that person. Bullies set entirely the wrong tone for productivity, passion, and fun. They drain energy.
The funny thing about these tyrants is that when they lie or back stab or threaten, they think that no one else notices. The truth is, everyone notices because these things get around. And so the fraud of authority becomes transparent, a shameless ego trip. Employees obey, but they don’t believe. How can they share the dream of a person they privately loathe? They can’t.
Who are these monoliths—these institutional fascists wallowing in their muck of false glory? They come in all shapes and sizes. All colors and both sexes too. Inevitably what makes them a universal plague on the worker is their bald cruelty. Some do it like smiling assassins—lying to save face while turning the knife in your back. Others are more honest, but just as cruel—shouting you down like a verbal storm trooper. Either way, the mission is to destroy dreams. Dreams and dreamers.
The bully knows everything, of course, except how to let a human talent flourish. Instead he creates a muck—an embalming fluid for the soul, suffocating the employees. And the bully is like a grim mortician, pouring gobs of cake makeup onto the faces of the dead so that they are all lifeless clones of his image.
Only a few dare to swim in this embalming fluid. It is indeed a complex, challenging mixture the fascists have fashioned.
The embalming fluid of business is no mere chemical concoction dreamed up by heartless analysts. It has a more sinister quality to it, a duplicity that works like black magic, rendering all who don’t fight for their life to a fate of absolute apathy.
The problem is respect. The bullies have no respect because, in many cases, they are not leaders and, I suspect, secretly don't even respect themselves. Some clearly have no talent. But many do; just no leadership talent. Classically they ride the system. They were A students all through school but wouldn’t know the difference between a red light and a green one when it comes to street smarts. They test well, but they live as if life were a series of exams instead of adventures.
They sit in their throne room of an office and look down on all employees. These people, lower on the corporate food chain, have been beaten down and thus, they cower.
This weighted system is installed with fear and with rewards—it examines everything but talent and drive. Who was your cousin? Did you go to Stanford? Do you have an MBA, and do you speak Flemish? Will you do everything we say without question?
The monoliths will always have you believe that you are in God’s Little Waiting Room. You don’t live; you wait under their control. Quiet resignation is their goal for you.
They do it in so many ways. Little ways that grow big. Big ways that can’t be ignored.
Doors. They do it with doors—barriers that suggest you are not to come in; you are not good enough. They close the door to their office, and they put a gaudy brass nameplate on it that clearly says, “This person is really important.”
They do it with labels—when they label things “executive,” such as the executive washroom, or the executive dining room, or the executive parking space. What feudal crap! It’s medieval, this tier system of privilege. It says you are nothing if you don’t have access to these perquisites. If you listen to this, you might even start believing it. A company that loses touch with its employees loses everything.
As for an executive parking space, all I can say is, get to work early if you want a good parking space. It’s that simple.
Electronic computer access is another barrier. You can’t have information. There it is, can’t again. Knowledge is power, and they don’t want to give it away. This time you are not trusted. They dream up a secret password and then refuse to give it to you—limiting the access you have to vital information about the company. Often it is precisely the information you need for timely, accurate decision making. But so vital is this information, apparently, it is more vital than you.
That’s how it always is, isn’t it? The employee is the least-valuable part of the company. Just a cog in the wheel, right? Stick ’em in the embalming fluid of the workaday world and watch the body die.
The answer is, as it always is, honesty and compassion coupled with a dash of creativity. Explain the problem; show you care.
Too many companies do not care. They expect employees to have a Muzak personality, and they run their companies with absolutely no verve.
Too many employees let themselves get beaten down—they give in to the monarchs in their mahogany castles. They don’t have a let’s-do-something-right attitude. Instead, the attitude is, I won’t piss anyone off. In most companies the employee motto is Cover Thy Butt. If you examine where that attitude originated, inevitably you will find it is also the motto of the executives.
If you want to know if an employer is drowning its employees in embalming fluid, just walk into the work area and see if anyone looks at you. See if they take their eyes off their work for even one moment to greet you, to smile at you, to show they are alive. If they do not, the leadership has beaten them down. If the rules are set up to suck the life from employees, it inevitably will do so from all but the most determined.
The great news is that the most determined will either eliminate the stifling status quo, or they will move on to greener pastures, cutting their own swath. The best companies, new or old, are not lifeless. They are adventurous.
About the authors:
Hap Klopp was the founder and 20-year CEO of The North Face, the world renowned mountaineering, backpacking and skiing company. After selling the highly successful company he set up his own global management consulting company, and began lecturing at leading business schools, speaking to large businesses, and writing. Most recently he and two partners have taken ownership of the 100 year old global rugby company, Canterbury of New Zealand. For fun, Klopp has rafted down the Zambezi River, flown hot air balloons and gliders over the Napa Valley, skied down glaciers in Europe and explored jungle ruins in Latin America.
Brian Tarcy is a freelance journalist who has collaborated on more than a dozen books with business leaders and professional athletes. He has also written for many magazines and newspapers across the country. Tarcy has a degree in Journalism from Ohio University, and lives in Falmouth, Massachusetts.