Monday, August 22, 2011

Getting Underlings to Commit Your Crimes

Reading the news I often get the feeling I've read the same thing before. There's this from a Stephen Moss profile of historian and Hitler biographer Ian Kershaw in the Guardian:

" ...the phrase most associated with Kershaw: "working towards the Führer", the idea that though Hitler was not dictating every aspect of policy the entire bureaucratic apparatus devoted itself to trying to interpret his wishes. "People second-guessed what he wanted," Kershaw explains. "He didn't need to command everything. People interpret 'getting rid of the Jews' in different ways, and cumulatively that then pushes along the dynamic of the persecution without Hitler having to say 'do this, do that, do the other'."

And this paragraph from Michael Wolff's analysis of the Murdoch scandal in AdWeek from a week ago:

"It’s all about the organization. It’s an organization all about doing what Rupert wants you to do, or doing what you imagine Rupert wants you to do, or doing what you imagine your boss imagines Rupert wants done. There are few companies as large as News Corp. that are so devoted and in thrall to one man. There are few companies which, over so long, have so assiduously hired the kind of people who would be in thrall to one man. Indeed, News Corp. can be quite a disorganized and scattered company, and yet its driving premise, what unites and motivates this oft-times gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight enterprise, is to do as Rupert would have you do."

In the Reagan White House, this same management style gave Reagan "plausible deniability" when his subordinates were selling advanced weapons to Iranian terrorists and using the profits to arm Central American guerillas that Congress had refused to support. Ollie North's "neat idea." They knew what the president wanted and got it done without explicit instructions. When the crime was discovered, the boss avoided blame.

The useful managerial instruction "I don't care how you do it...just get it done" has caused of a lot of misery in the world, but it takes awhile for the consequences to fall on the perpetrator. The harm hits everyone else first. Ethical managers know better. It isn't a new phenomenon. In the twelfth century Henry II had an archbishop named Thomas á Beckett who he wanted dead, and some eager minions who took care of it for him.

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