Freedom is not having to stoop to sycophancy

First published in the Financial Times on 18th March 2014. 

Being phoney, a requirement for climbing the greasy pole, is corrosive and bad for one’s health

Possibly the best thing about working for oneself is that you don’t have to do any arse-kissing.

Now obviously that is not entirely true, because there are always some people to whom you have to grovel – bankers, investors, regulators, even customers. But, generally speaking, the self-employed are required to tolerate and dispense considerably less insincere bullshit than is the norm within big organisations.

This must be a good thing. Being phoney for a living is corrosive and I’m sure it is bad for one’s health – and takes up lots of time that could be used productively. Unfortunately, it is a prima facie requirement for ambitious executives who want to climb the greasy pole to any prominent boardroom. Hence, if you are not prepared to sign up to this type of lifestyle – fawning to those in power, immersed in office politics, pretending to like colleagues whom you hate – then I suggest you plan your corporate exit, or dump your ambitions.

Arguably, I am unqualified to give advice in this sphere, since I have been my own boss for the past quarter of a century. Before then I fear I was a disruptive member of staff. I recall during my early twenties, when I worked in an investment bank, I swore loudly at my buffoon of a boss across the trading floor. It confirmed I was unfit to progress within such a structure and I left within a year.

I have spent periods sitting on the boards of rather more formal institutions where I am not an owner. It is hardly my natural milieu, but straight talk does at least clear away a lot of the plotting, deceit and subterfuge that tends to infect management gatherings. All that backbiting and guile is both demoralising and distracting to those who are worthy of their job. But institutional boardrooms tend to attract quite a few of those who indulge in pretence and intrigue. Such manoeuvres have never been my strong suit: I find all the plotting too tiring and unproductive.

In theory, free speech is encouraged in large organisations.

In reality it destroys careers. Outspoken employees are not seen as team players; independent views are discouraged, for they can undermine the illusions that keep the whole edifice standing. Groupthink is the fatal disease that leads to the demise of big companies – and it is primarily fuelled by a culture of sycophancy and ingratiation.

I’m fortunate in that I can say what I want (within reason) to journalists or on public platforms, and write provocative stuff in this column. If I were an employee – even a CEO – I’d have to toe the party line a great deal more. Such freedom is one of the advantages

you enjoy when forgoing the power, perks and relatively risk-free existence that being a corporate wage slave entails. If you join the corporate tribe you might one day get the sack but you’ll probably get a juicy pay-off and you are unlikely to have your house repossessed – which occasionally happens to some unlucky entrepreneurs.

Of course, being in a position to say whatever you want is not entirely a good thing. There have been occasions during negotiations when I should have held my tongue instead of saying what I actually thought. Unfortunately, so much in the business world – indeed in life itself – is artifice, blandishments and flattery that expressing a blunt opinion can be an expensive habit. These days carrying out a job interview or dismissal is an exercise in contrivance, thanks to fatuous employment laws and an over-litigious society.

Moreover, a lifetime of never having to kiss arse can have a coarsening effect. I have seen it in action with those who have possessed huge wealth for many years. Pride, vanity, the visceral need for control, and the ability to wield it – can be a dangerous cocktail. While Lord Acton coined the phrase “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, he followed it with an equally perceptive comment: “There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it.” Bosses of all kinds should take note. Even if you are truly able to speak your mind, it is not always a wise policy.