First published in the Sunday Times on 27th December 2015.
The politically correct view of people management is that it is mainly about team spirit and co-operation. Meanwhile, the idea that companies are run as dictatorships seems repellent to decent citizens in the 21st century. A recent book, called Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Co-operators on Earth, argues that mankind has advanced thanks to the productivity that comes with elaborate governance institutions and teamwork. The book was self-published by the evolutionary scientist Peter Turchin, who set out to discover why our culture has made mankind so prosperous.
Stephen Pinker makes similar points in The Better Angels of our Nature, where he writes that commerce is one of the five driving forces that have made mankind less violent over the course of history. Commerce is “a positive sum game in which everybody can win; as technological progress allows the exchange of goods and ideas over longer distances and among larger groups of trading partners, other people become more valuable alive than dead”.
Curiously, this belief in collaboration clashes with the rise of individualism at work. According to the magazine Management Today, those born between 1980 and 2000 — the millennials — are more preoccupied with achieving fame, being noticed and working independently than previous generations. This partly explains why so many are choosing entrepreneurship: the self-employed now make up about 15% of the workforce, an all-time high.
David Brooks highlights the issue in his book The Road To Character: “In 1948, psychologists asked more than 10,000 adolescents whether they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12% said ‘yes’. The same question was asked in 2003, and this time it wasn’t 12% . . . it was 80%.”
I wonder how many millennials subscribe to the late Felix Dennis’s view that “team spirit is for losers, financially speaking. It’s the glue that binds the losers together. It’s the methodology employers use to shackle useful employees to their desk without having to pay them too much.” He goes on, “. . . unless you realise and accept that you cannot be ‘one of the boys’, that you and your bosses are not ‘in this thing together’, that only those who refuse to be conned by the idea of ‘team spirit’ in the workplace can succeed . . . then you will only make other people rich”.
Dennis was the multimillionaire owner of The Week and other magazines: his tough words quoted here come from his insightful book How to get Rich. It is worth reading — he was one of that rare breed, capable of both writing well and making large sums of money. Dennis was also highly eccentric, claiming to have planted a million trees in the Heart of England Forest, as well as being a published poet. But he never married, had no children — and admitted spending $100m on drugs, wine and women.
Perhaps he suffered from loneliness, as do many who rise to the top. It seems it is part of the price you pay for absolute success. Those with the greatest ambition are quite willing to endure such drawbacks in exchange for the rewards — power, status, money and so forth. According to a recent Times/Odgers Berndtson survey entitled Lonely at the Top, a third of FTSE 350 bosses admitted to feeling pressured or lonely because of their workload.
There is usually a defining moment in the formation of any enterprise when the potential spoils are divided and roles assigned. On such occasions, the killer instinct emerges from those who possess it. Hearty team players, who believe in fairness and equality and such good things, tend to lose out in the negotiations. The victors are those who try to seize the lot. Often they do remarkably well, not thanks to hard work or greater intelligence, but because of single-mindedness, sheer selfishness and bravado. They tend to fail in the long run, though, if they do not know how to motivate and inspire others.
Ultimately, none of us wants anarchy, which leads to immiseration. So we accept a system of hierarchy because, as Shakespeare said, “we cannot all be masters”. Some have to lead and some must follow. Thus wealth and power are distributed unequally. Companies run by over-promoted administrators, bureaucrats or committees rarely do well. The truth is that leadership involves taking difficult and unpopular decisions. There are rules, but structures that suffocate leaders who possess flair are destructive, while bosses who seek to be loved too much do not make progress.
And in certain fields, such as the creative industries, it will always be the special individual who matters. As John Steinbeck wrote in East of Eden: “Nothing was ever created by two men. There are no good collaborations . . . Once the miracle of creation has taken place, the group can build and extend it, but the group never invents anything. The preciousness lies in the lonely mind of a man.”