Not a happy story…
Here he is! Crossing toward center stage, a spotlight struggling to keep up, he takes long energetic strides, long strides for a short man, long for a short plump Seville Row be-suited man, an older, plump Seville Row be-suited man in handmade Italian shoes in a hurry. He arrives at last to the podium, lit cigar in hand, hazy tendrils smoking, stinking, if truth be known. You wonder how he could possibly be allowed to have a smoking cigar on stage in a public hall in the age of No Smoking? Wonder no more. This is James the Great! And he is being feted and fawned upon as the Mega-preneur Golden Legend winner, (that’s entrepreneur on a grand scale), a big ostentatious award. Tonight he is the big shot of all big shots in this evening of big shots, all hail, all praise, all clap!
You may be seated. James the Great is about to speak….
Sweat glistens on his substantial forehead, cigar smoke curling up around him. Rather predictably he starts with the “I want to thank” part, his grandfather who beat him at checkers when he was a kid and made fun of him for being stupid, his father who wasn’t there for him because of drink, and his mother who was there for him, reigning goddess of tough love, emphasis on tough, who he describes as one great lady who will undoubtedly outlive him (nervous laughter).
By now you suspect his speech was ghost written (after all, James has several communication specialists), someone who has done a word conjuring, laying down words to exude a folksy, slightly abrupt, rough sounding patois, flavored in the tiniest ray of hope that a dollop of caring or softness might be expected right around the corner. Of course we know the caring promise is just that: James is not the caring type. James is James the Great because, at least as he sees it, James made James, and if you are great, and he never doubts that he is, you don’t become great or stay great by caring. The path to this podium was hard: relentlessness and tough mindedness are what it takes to make it!
He shifts to the story telling part, three yarns of loss and triumph, into the teeth of dragons faced and unbelievably slain, epical “you will never know how hard it was” vignettes. There is no letting up, there is no coasting, no taking one’s foot off the accelerator. But the hope of softness, of “us-ness” as opposed to “me-ness” – well that’s just an artifice that adds breadth to his greatness, a slight of hand slipped in place by the communications specialist. He goes on, and on, and on, because he can. He is after all James the Great and this is his chance to tell the world how great he really is.
This story is not to vilify James. He doesn’t need my help to do that. He is and was a reliably disagreeable person twenty-four hours a day, at least the James I knew, my James if you will. I worked for my James forty-five years ago, my first and only “real” corporate job. I have him to thank for my inspiration to start out. He launched me down the entrepreneur’s path, the one that brings me to this page today, and for that I am grateful. At the time I was convinced he was the biggest jerk in the western hemisphere, and I never wanted to work for him or any jerk like him again. What I didn’t know then that I do know now though, is that my James was not an anomaly – there are quite a few Jameses out there in the trophy case of successful executives, and to them, at them, I shake my head, not so much fearing for their souls. James and his kin can and do take care of themselves. I shake my head in incredulity at all the people who work for them. In my coaching practice, I meet executives who have also worked with the Jameses of the world. They tell their own James-inflicted stories, all tales of misery.
Spoiler alert: Unfortunately, these Jameses rarely change. Working for them is depressing and dispiriting, darker than a seventeenth century Russian tragedy. People who find themselves in the maw of these Jameses are often ground down by abuse, or… worse, they become little Jameses in their own right, or double worse, James enablers… a horde.
But before you throw your hands up in despair, stay with me just a little longer – there is a point to this disheartening riff.
Here’s one story that wouldn’t have made James’ acceptance speech, as told by one of his conscripted executives.
All the presidents of James’ companies met monthly for a joint blood-letting in some hard-to-get-to city and once there, to leave. Although most of us resided on the US West Coast, James named the meeting locations on personal whims. One, for example, was in Cincinnati, Ohio because he wanted to see a baseball game, or so we heard. He didn’t invite us to the baseball game:: we were on brutally tight expense accounts flying back and forth on the red eye, and most of us stayed at local motels, I’m not kidding, motels! But at the appointed hour, we were all expected to be present and ready to fight for our lives as the doors closed in some god forsaken conference room where we were pushed up close and personal with perpetually angry James. And heaven help you if you were late. Like so much in these meetings, late was relative, based on James’ time, not yours.
So in Cincinnati, the meeting was set for 8:00 AM. One of James’ thousand hot buttons was tardiness. I was nervous all the time around him to begin with and being a bit anal about punctuality myself too, I was in the room at 7:50, in my seat, palms sweating. There were ten presidents in all, and the others filed in after me, all but one, Mark. At 7:55, James appeared with a bang, slammed the door behind him, turned the lock “click”, sat down, cigar in hand, smoke trailing, and barked: “All right, let’s get to it. Roberts! What the hell is going on in the envelopes business?” Roberts began talking, and he and James went back and forth a bit before we heard a knock at the door. As I was closest to the door, I got up to open it. “Sit down!” I nod and sat. After three more minutes and two more knockings on the door, James ordered me to open the door.
Outside, in a chair next to the door, sat Mark, the youngest and newest of James’ presidents. Hurrying into his empty place at the table, he said “Sorry, I thought the meeting was to start at 8:00” and was no doubt going to explain that he had arrived at one minute before eight when James barked, “Admit it, you were asleep at the switch. You need to show up early, you need to be in your chair and ready to work well before I show up, do you understand?”
“Yes sir, I do.”
For the rest of the meeting, James referred to Mark as “Mr. Big Ben”, grinding the lesson for all of us.
The following month, we met in Stowe, Vermont because he wanted to go to some out of the way rich guy’s lodge. We were all seated in the room by 7:45 AM. Unfortunately in the past month, Mark’s business unit had suffered a setback, something driven by the market, but a real setback nonetheless. He was nervous. James appeared at 7:50, slammed the door and started the meeting growling as usual. He asked for reports starting with the person next to Mark, still being referred to as Mr. Big Ben, then Jack, then Tom, and soon it became clear James was working his way around the table leaving Mr. Big Ben for last. Hours later, when it was finally Mark’s turn, he sat gaunt, pale, bent over his deck. He sucked in one last hopeless breath and began talking in a forced, over loud voice, like a teenager yelling out Shakespeare lines, telling how his business unit had met most of their budget projections, how certain costs were cut, how their new product was progressing in research and development. After about two minutes of this, James, who was reddening like a cartoon villain, growing more and more impatient with the report, shouted “When are you going to cut the crap and tell us how you fell asleep at the switch again?”
Mr. Big Ben, already nervous, having sat through eleven reports, eight floggings and two near floggings went dumb, red-faced and staring slack-jawed at the stack of slides in front of him. “Well, God damn it, how long do we have to wait for it Mr. Big Ben?” James shouted. “I don’t have all day! Speak! Speak! Speak I said!”
Mr. Big Ben rose and whispered, “I’m sorry sir, I can’t….”
“Where the hell do you think you’re going? Stop right where you are! Take one more step, just one more, and you’re fired, you understand! Stop where you are! Get your ass back into that chair and take your medicine like a man! You’re are @#$%^ a disgrace to this business, a pathetic underperforming coward! Now speak!”
Mr. Big Ben described this ordeal to me ten years after it actually happened. As he told the tale, reliving the details, he was breathing deeply, cheeks reddened, mouth worked into a frown, eyes squinted, right hand clenching into a fist, releasing, clenching, releasing. We were working on a vision for his business, the next ten years. We were in a pub (he lives just outside of Manchester England where a pub is the natural place to meet). I asked him about his strategic priorities. He had four major strategic initiatives, three of them to do with developing his people: a training initiative; a profit-sharing initiative; and a code of conduct and vision initiative. I asked him about choosing these particular initiatives. In response, he told me about James the Great, and how he never wanted to cause the type of injury or destruction he felt when he worked for James.
“Why did you work for him in the first place?” I asked.
“Because he was famous, he was rich, and he could be as charming as he was brutal. He wooed me with the charm side, and then unleashed the other side, once I was in place.”
“And after that, why did you stay?”
“Working for James the Great was supposed to be the one great step for anyone who wanted to get to the top. I wanted to get to the top, be a player, a big player, and I thought I had found the road to fame and riches, running one of his businesses.”
“Well yes, but in an indirect way.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, I did sit back down, at the table like he ordered me to do. I somehow got through my report about the setback. He ranted and tried to beat me to death, to humiliate me in front of the rest of the group. You know a cautionary tale, the head on the spike so to speak. And when he was done, or almost done, he asked me what I was going to do about the mess, poking his cigar at me like I was a criminal or worse. It was at that moment, somehow… I felt like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, I saw the futility of the picture I’d been clinging to…. I just thought to my self, what an idiot I’d been. Here was this maniac, this nasty self-absorbed jerk, and I was infantilizing myself… to him! I was lurching this way and that, trying to follow his nonsensical, clearly capricious demands, bowing and scraping in front of him, running with a pack of people who accepted this as normal human interaction, people who were otherwise pretty nice, hard working, diligent people but under James, were like hungry whipped dogs on call. If this was the path to success, I didn’t want any of it.”
“Wow, big moment….”
“Well yes it was. So as I was really leaving the room, he told me to my back, that I would never work in this industry again. And I told him to go screw himself. Just like that. I was done! If he was so smart he would have no trouble fixing the problem himself… and I just walked out of the meeting. Best thing I ever did.”
“Yes, well at first I was out of work, of course. My wife, she’s Scottish, the idea of me being out of work is, well she was insanely worried, but to give her credit, after she recovered from the shock, she was my biggest supporter, literally. She had been working part time in a clinic – she’s a physical therapist, and she put in for full time. I spent a couple of months ruminating about what it was in me that would let me work for someone like that… you know bad genes, blame my parents or something! Then I woke up one morning and just decided it was time to get off my ass and get back to work. I took a job with a smaller company, a people-centric place. We made a nice success there, got a bit of a nest egg, and then my wife and I decided we would start our own business. Do it our way. So there you are. By the grace of god, or the dis-grace of James if you will.”
It turns out there are a lot of Jameses out there. They’re not always as flamboyant as James the Great, not always a he, not always that loud or nasty. But there are plenty of powerful jerks, people who are abusive, corrosive, mean spirited, people in a position of power who use it like a cudgel, or a gun, or both. My advice: stay away from them. And above all know that there are more agreeable, healthy, and profitable ways to behave as a leader.
But drawing from the same pool of experience, people from all over the world who have shared stories with me about their lives and careers, I’m convinced that for every James out there, there are plenty of anti-Jameses, good leaders, good women and men, people with strong affirming values who lead enterprises large and small. Find such a leader, become such a leader, someone who will advocate your success and development.
Human Resources doggerel says people leave managers, not companies. The data shows that most people who quit a job do so not because of the company as a whole, but do so (in the main) to leave a specific manager. Organizational theory says that as we form and reform groups within an enterprise, these groups face a learning curve, in part, described by how well team members know each other, how long it takes them to learn to work successfully together, how to develop and improve skills necessary to team success. If one such team is experiencing constant turnover because of a hostile environment, a reigning jerk of a boss, let’s say, the trek up the learning curve is uncertain, more confused and the team’s potential as a team is inexorably stunted. In short, the cost of doing business for that team (and the enterprise) becomes much higher.
Most of us know a James, or have heard tell of one. Stories about James and his kin are everywhere, and so we have the apologists. We hear people saying things like, well he was a real character, or she was tough but I learned a lot, or he had to be that way because of this or that. Most of this talk is a way for the storyteller to rationalize having been victimized. No one in the conference room in Stowe doubted that they could be flogged at any moment at any meeting about anything James wanted to get on about, anything, at the drop of a hat. Everybody in that room knew James would fire them in a second, for any reason, no recourse, out you go. Yes I have heard a lot of “what a character, and he was a tough old bugger but” talk. People say these things until, as happens to everyone, their particular James dies.
I read about my James’ passing. Thousands had known him because his public company employed thousands. But only thirty or so people attended his funeral, three quarters of whom were relatives. I was there, curious and wondering what had happened to him. It was a full blown funeral service, organ booming, flowers everywhere in an almost empty cathedral. As it turns out, in the last years of James’ career, he directed his nasty temper on those who had followed him, his inner team, literally firing all of them over the course of two years. He became reclusive, a kind of Ebenezer Scrooge without the redeeming bit at the end of the story. So when he passed, what was left of his once great enterprise drifted into receivership. None of his old comrades were at the church. James had turned his meanness in on himself and at the end, that’s what was left to him and those around him, mostly disenfranchised family members impatient to read the will.
There is no happy ending to this tale of bad behavior. No ending at all because we are human beings (not human doings) and being human, there is in each of us anger, meanness, and all the other unseemly bits of human nature… along with altruism, affection, humor, caring… it’s all there, human beings. In a society of humans, there will always be people who choose to act like jerks. And in some places, meanness will be the organizing principal. But just in some places, not all places, not even the majority of places.
So choose to work in a place where you are valued, where you will be encouraged to grow, to learn what you need to learn, where your development is seen as a pathway to your success, your family’s success, and the community’s success. Businesses are commercial communities formed to make or do something, sustain themselves (profits, products, stakeholders) and engage participants with work and life experience. Go the extra mile for yourself by insisting you keep searching until you find a place that brings out the best in you, and in turn, you can contribute to a group, an enterprise, an adventure that supports and develops everyone.
And if you happen to be the CEO or owner or leader of your community? Well, you know what I’m going to say….