The Mediocrity of Meritocracy

“I think the world is run by ‘C’ students.”
                                 -Al McGuire

Any line so attractive and quoted by Adam Curry deserves our attention.

I’m nitpicking to observe that it’s probably not true, but the world’s certainly controlled by C students. Modern organizations demand a grasp of scores of dynamic components – finance, legal, regulatory, marketing, etc. To run such an operation is one of the most demanding roles ever attempted, and Adam would probably concur. In most enterprises, what matters is whether you deliver the goods, not whether the Board thinks you walk on water. The notable exceptions we’ve seen this year are not the majority of businesses.

CEO jobs aren’t popularity contests, except of course for the biggest, toughest job on earth, but Dubya probably wouldn’t have received many C’s either without his connections.

(Digression of the day: “Dubya was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.”)

Who are those guys?

Ken Werbach looked at the copyright fight and saw two distinct personality types:

Herein lies the conflict between Hollywood and the technology industry in a nutshell.  One sees content as the critical resource, and data networks as simply another mechanism to deliver it.  The other sees connectivity as the essential factor, with movies being one of many resources that can travel along those connections.  Hollywood sees a moral dimension in protecting its property and the creative works of its artists, as well as a nobility in bringing entertainment to the masses.  The tech industry thinks bits are bits, and the only moral value that really matters is freedom.

Werbach is really on to something here. What looks like a straightforward difference of opinion may reveal a deep and fundamental distinction in how people see things and act on what they see. To put a label on them, you might say the content people are part of a type called Pushers and the tech people are Pullers. The Pushers see markets and consumers as targets to be captured and held, a grand game of capture the flag. Pullers pull together the details that fascinate them and don’t think too much about the pecking order they’re trapped in. More interestingly, it looks from here like the Pushers have been running things for-frickin’-ever.

If these are indeed distinct personality types, and Pushers have been running things forever, what if the Pullers are beginning to supplant the Pushers in the power structure? How will it affect the way decisions are made, how resources are allocated, what the society considers fair or not?

Organizations are run by the middle managers who look like they are doing their job and so are promotable. But there’s no task-level quality metric in an organization, so the test is whether an employee is liked and admired by management – a highly personal choice. Who gets picked? The same ‘C’ students who’ve been picked since Junior High. The cool kids.

Be Cool to your School

Remember high school? I recall a fundamental division among my peer group of adolescent males – the cool guys and the rest. The cool guys got the girls and the rest wondered how they did it. The difference was their confidence that they had all the answers that mattered and their mastery of socialization skills and the pecking order. We, on the other hand, made no pretense at being clued in to everything, because we were interested in how things really work, whether it was computers or rockets or math or literature or western civilization, geeky interests that lowered the cool factor. That would be most of the people writing and reading blogs.

Remember how disengaged the cool kids were? They seemed to avoid the details, maybe because it’s a full time job being cool. It requires a kind of social genius and real attention to a vapid but disciplined repartee. Many of the coolest kids really did nothing more than date, drink and all the rest. Their primary discipline was to remain cool, so everything served that expediency. Even when they were very smart, they couldn’t afford to deal with complexity, since their priority was to emerge from every encounter with their coolness enhanced. That’s why they deal in OR logic, not AND logic.

I believe we adopt these archetypes early and they stick with us forever. Think about your own classmates and how they ended up. The coolest guys, if they don’t get sidetracked by booze, drugs or rock ‘n roll, seem to move up the corporate or political ladders with an easy grace beyond comprehension. Their true organizational genius is to get people to do their bidding, which is no mean feat. They’re usually surrounded by can-do Pullers who love being close to His Coolness. Those are the people who actually get things done.

At some deep, tribal level, we resonate with certain personalities and do what they want, whether or not it’s in our own best interest. Those are the personalities who easily engage bosses, senior partners, directors, bankers, analysts and all the other people whose nod puts a career on a fast track. They also fascinate political party workers and voters. They were at the Hamptons this summer and Pullers weren’t.

Revenge of the Nerds

In Mindwalk, Liv Ullmann plays a nerdy nuclear scientist who fears we’ll destroy the world because leaders don’t think through the implications of their initiatives – that we need to think about systems, not expediency. Sure enough, the web erupted four years later and started requiring people to think about systems and how things work under the surface. The Pullers who were good at that designed the Internet and now it’s caught the attention of the Pushers, who don’t have a clue how it works, but have directed the Pullers who work for them to figure out how to dominate their fair share of the Internet.

It may not be possible for Pushers to co-opt the Internet. If that’s true, it could precipitate yet another shift in the personality types that dominate the economy. Each era favors certain leadership archetypes.Todays leaders are nothing like their warlord predecessors, so is it possible the Internet age could change the type again? How could that happen?

Each phase of history has its natural leaders, though I can’t think of any that weren’t Pushers. Monarchies arose due to the divine right of thugs. Leadership of the medieval church went to those who could be simultaneously pious and manipulative, with no relationship to physical strength. The Industrial Age asked for some technical prowess, but no more than the horse- or swords-manship required of an earlier aristocracy. Today’s middle managers are those with a leaning toward finance and corporate structuring, but no more than is required to inspire the Pullers who get things done.

The principle of Procedural Disadvantage is also the principle of Procedural Advantage. In an Internet world, systems people understand how to get things done and their bosses are hostage to the systems the Pullers put together and only the Pullers can maintain. Since creaturtes started organizing for mutual advantage, there’s never been a feedback
quality loop so the group could see if their leaders were making good decisions. The good leaders’ groups prevailed and the bad leaders’ groups died off. Darwinism is a powerful invisible hand, but it’s workings are not obvious to the participants.

With the growth of Procedural Advantage as a visible force, the dynamic has changed forever. When systems fail, we all see it immediately: the switchboard lights up, the web orders stop and the damage is visible to every analyst, shareholder and customer that’s plugged into the system.

Good news for Geeks, Nerds and Pullers everywhere: the Pushers will never stuff the Procedural Advantage genie back in the bottle.
1:49:50 PM    

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