A few years into my management career, I found myself part of a triumvirate of managers. Three of us—Tom, Vince and me—of equal “rank,” working in the same department, and vying for control over our shared resources. (That’s what managers call people: “resources.”) It was an untenable situation, the three of us jockeying for position all the time, trying to be The One In Charge, trying to break this stupid three-way tie.
The boss wasn’t especially concerned about our plight, which is why this situation went on for such a long time. But after awhile he began to realize it was troublesome for the people who reported to us. They (the “resources”) recognized the competition between us and were a bit confused by it, since they all performed more or less the same job for one of us. We were three arbitrarily chosen people who seemed to be headed nowhere in particular except into each other’s paths.
When the confusion in our midst finally got the boss’s attention, he asked the three of us to meet and decide among ourselves which of us should lead the entire group. Instead of three managers of equal managerial standing, we were to emerge from this polite slugfest with one of us noticeably in charge and the other two of us somewhat reduced in rank. (If you’re thinking this was a strange approach, you’re correct. It’s not a model to follow.)
So we met. Not surprisingly, nothing was decided. We emerged from the meeting at the same impasse we’d been facing when it began.
Imagine my surprise when, an hour or two after the unsuccessful meeting, my phone rang and it was our boss calling to tell me how delighted he was the three of us had arrived at a decision.
“Vince told me you three agreed that he would be in charge.”
“I’m delighted to hear it’s all worked out.”
I thought to myself, “But we decided no such thing,” though I didn’t say so. I’m not sure why I didn’t—I’m rarely tongue-tied—but instead of speaking out, I reflected. It wasn’t like the boss to lie, so I was fairly sure he hadn’t made this up. I thought about Vince, and tried to imagine him telling the boss we’d proclaimed him the victor when we hadn’t.
I had observed a few things about Vince in the time I’d worked with him. He was nervous, but he pretended confidence. It wasn’t hard to see through that. He blinked ferociously, licked his lips frequently and thrummed any available tabletop. He was also articulate, energetic, and sincere. Sometimes he was even gracious. How did that add up to dishonest?
Although it would be nice to say I arrived at the answer to that question, the truth is I didn’t. But I wasn’t thrown by the inconsistency, and perhaps that’s because I’d met so many characters in books who were nothing if not inconsistent. What’s literature without protagonists who say one thing and mean another, who do the unexpected for reasons we sometimes understand, who stagnate, waffle, even lie? Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom comes to mind. So does Sloan Wilson’s Tom Rath, from The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit. Even Gatsby (or perhaps especially Gatsby).
Vince continued on as The One In Charge for many months. But as you might expect, he didn’t take us anywhere. He wasn’t a visionary, and he wasn’t a man of action. As a group, we followed his example—waffling, wavering, accomplishing little. Within a year, someone else was put in charge of the group, and I broke off to work for a different part of the organization.
If there are lessons in all this, one is a business management lesson: Bad decisions don’t usually stick. For awhile, sure, but not for long. But the other, perhaps more important, lesson is that an understanding of, or at least an acceptance of, human behavior is key to success in the workplace. Leaders, followers, decision-makers are inconsistent, frustrating, complicated, and while we might want determinism and predictability from them, we rarely get it.
People who have spent time in the pages of great books, getting to know humankind thanks to the characters they’ve met, are better prepared for the vagaries of business life.