All this week I have been engrossed with Andrew Ross Sorkin’s Too Big To Fail, a fly-on-the-wall chronicling of how the US financial system went kaput in 2008. It is a sordid saga full of rolling heads, private jets, endless conference calls and that old villain: Collateralized Debt Obligations.
Sordid, yes, but also awesome. Awesome in that human way when you take great pleasure in the misfortunes of others who are vastly more successful and wealthy. There are hardly any protagonists in the book who don’t own a $30 million home, or ever use commercial airlines. When such types crash and burn, it warms the heart.
Yes, I know this sounds mean and ill-willed. After all, the Bible does tell us in the Book Of Proverbs: “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth: Lest the LORD see it, and it displease him. But feel free to verily shorteth Lehman stock nonetheless.” I have edited above quote for brevity.
Currently, I am on page 220 out of 539. The suspense is building. Will Lehman find a buyer? Why is everyone in Goldman Sachs’ top management so bald? Do they actively seek out men with hair problems while hiring? Does Arindam Chaudhuri know this?
But also within the pages of Sorkin’s book, I realized something which made the mild-mannered fellow in me most upset: Almost every successful banker and administrator mentioned in the book is an ultra alpha male with extreme drive, crazy aggression and an empathy for humanity akin to Chemical Ali. Hardly any of them knock on doors before entering, or use words such as “please”, “kindly” or local US equivalents for “dey machaan!”.
Few, if any, exhibit the slightest hint of niceness. They are all such total bastards. But such rich, well-bonussed bastards. (I mean “bastard” in the emotional, non-literal way everyone abuses in Delhi.)
Is that, I now wonder, what it takes to be successful and wealthy in the corporate environment? Do you always have to come to work with adrenaline and sheer evil coursing through your veins?
If so, then the repercussions are not good for us pleasant, Hobbit-like folk. We are doomed professionally. All we have left are middle-management mediocrity and office culture column writing. Even when we prevail and destroy the Ring, the guy with swords and an anger management problem becomes the king.
Around a year ago I interviewed the CEO of a large, Mumbai-based company. The man had a reputation for taking no nonsense from anyone with a taste for sustained, salaried employment. If he summoned any of his executives they promptly dropped everything else, double-checked life insurance policies, called family and put HR on high samosa alert for a farewell party. And then left quietly.
And to make matters worse, this CEO was not gifted with a beaming countenance. He was a student of the Darth Vader school of facial expression which welcomed you with a look that said: “Welcome to my room. Take a seat. That choking feeling is normal and will not last long. Tea?”
After the CEO conceded that he was quite a terror, I asked him why this was so. Had he been like this always?
He leaned back in his chair and told me, ruefully, that there was a time when he was a friendly, cool guy to hang out with. “I used to play cricket with the staff, you know,” he said, somewhat misty-eyed, “and see movies with them.” And then?
“Then I became CEO and I decided I had to change. Tough decisions had to be made. I had to become hard. People need to realize they have to be straight with you.” It was clearly not a pleasant thing for him to discuss.
So was he happy with his tough love transformation?
His eyes said no. But his imported office CEO SUV said yes.
Perhaps, then, some hard managers are not born but made. The weight of expectations turns them from cricket-playing, matinee-watching softies to lords of the dark side.
Where does that leave the gentle people?
Well, one odd thing is how the bar for good street cred is so different for tough guys and nice guys. If you are a tough guy, then that alone is justification for admiration. The Die Hard movies being a case in point. But if you are an office party attending, birthday party singing nice guy, then to derive the same level of admiration, you have to have a but. A strong, impressive but: “Yes, our CFO is a quiet fellow who keeps to himself, BUT no one can inflate a balance sheet like he can!” Or, “Vikram is always calm and composed, BUT he knows how to operate the video-conference machine.” Instant alpha maledom.
So what kind of boss are you? The nice, sociable, go-out-for-a-smoke-with-the-troops kind? Or the no-holds-barred, wall-punching psycho with a penchant for Sunday morning meetings? Send us email only. No calls please. You scare us.
Cubiclenama takes a fortnightly look at the pleasures and perils of corporate life. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org