11 Comments

I think this is a really great essay, and I really enjoyed it.

I do have a criticism, however, in that it sort of falls apart and contradicts itself in the second to last paragraph.

The first reason is somewhat pedantic, but in fact most societies had (have) a reason why their leaders were deserving. Divine right of kings, descent from gods, chosen of god, caste, right of conquest, etc. It just doesn't take long before people start to wonder "Why is he pushing everyone around? Why not me?" and an answer needs to be provided.

More importantly, however, is that you conflate "meritocracy" with "credentialism". Those managers and leaders you describe before, those who can do the job better than their subordinates because they did it before and know it so well, those people have merit. The management school graduate with no experience and a still damp degree, that fellow has merely a credential. He may have some merit when it comes to completing school, but no demonstrated merit in the field he is entering.

I bring that up because I think that is where we got off the rails, confusing merit in one field (getting through school) with merit in any other field. We mistook a credential for merit that can apply anywhere, as though it were the turpentine from the beginning of the essay.

I would wager the issue came from the distinct realms of schooling: job training vs filtering for smart and conscientious. An engineer or a doctor who gets a degree probably can do engineering and doctoring pretty well shortly there after with minimal extra training (at least in the old days.) A manager or English major who gets a degree has merely shown they are intellectually sufficient to get the degree, not that they can actually do anything useful after without a lot of extra training. I expect that once, long ago when relatively few people could cut it in college and most went for job training type things anyway, merit and credentials were a little closer, but lately of course they have greatly diverged.

At any rate, I would argue that although we call what we have a "meritocracy" what we in fact have is a "credentialocracy". Which is awkward to say and embarrassing, so our rulers prefer to claim merit when in fact they eschew merit in favor of, well, doing exactly what you say in this essay. Which was really great! Except for those last two paragraphs :D Don't grant the bastards their claim that what we have is a meritocracy, when those in charge are versions of your executive who doesn't even know what his company does. That's not merit, at least not in any activity worth pursuing.

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Glad you enjoyed the review. I think the distinction you raise is a valuable one in general, but for the point I'm making in the penultimate paragraph, either "meritocracy" or "credentialocracy" will do. The problem with meritocracy, even a true one with an appropriate standard of merit, is that it doesn't provide any ideological support for treating subordinates as something besides instruments. Natural empathy or human decency will get you partway there, but I think in a lot of contexts leaders need something more.

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I don't know, I would say it goes a little past natural empathy and into "That was me, once." territory. Granted, there isn't in and of itself a clear ideological reason to care, but as I pointed out, I don't think any -ocracy provides that, either. Most rulers have not been good leaders, to their misfortune on occasion. I think you are perhaps trying to hang more on that than is justified, particularly on the historical prevalence of leaders as opposed to merely overlords or managers.

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I couldn't agree more with you that we have right now is not a meritocracy, but a malaise of credentialism. I've seen that first hand going through an MBA (which I couldn't force me to finish). Most of the teachers had no experience actually managing or leading. All they could do was spill platitudes and inanities and hope their audience was stupid enough to believe it.

I have also seen first hand how good leaders and managers work and how, given the opportunity (meritocracy), they will naturally rise to leadership positions. I guess most of the failures from the credentialed administrators is that they have never seen a true leader and thus are unable to even fathom what one is.

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It really is depressing how little much of academia knows about business, isn't it? I have worked with some folks in business school who knew what they are talking about, but a lot more who only tangentially had been in real business, but they had this great book of pithy quotes... It really bothers me how many economists just don't know anything about how businesses actually work, how decisions are made, etc. The crap that would come out of their mouths at conferences was amazing.

There is an interesting problem where meritocracy and credentialism meet that you just got me thinking about. There are some roles that are difficult to move up into from below, but are also difficult to get a degree training program in without doing the lower jobs first. My industry field is supply chain and planning, and there is a really big gap between say production planner where intimate knowledge of the processes is necessary but no math and then network planning where some process knowledge is necessary but a lot of math and more abstract knowledge. Likewise, the jump from sales or customer service to demand planning is common, but then people find "oh hell, demand planning is a crap ton of statistics and data manipulation!" and you get people way out of their depth. I assume there are many other cases. That would seem to be another source of the "we need a credential" instead of just merit, as you would want someone specifically trained to that role, and might think you can teach them the business later.

I will have to think more on that... it does make me think that it is a further diseconomy of scale, as those sorts of specialized positions are largely found in large organizations, as the problems of smaller ones are more tractable to simply getting a feel for.

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As to "why their leaders were deserving", I think the answer is and always has been the same. A good leader is one who brings victory to his people. No matter what other qualities he might possess, of what use is a leader who brings only defeat? Into the volcano for you!

Excellent article Mr. Psmith, very well written. It surprises me that anyone still believes in this management guru stuff. Is there any more odious genre of writing? My vague recollection of management theory history is that it started with "scientific management"--a theory that culminated with Robert McNamara's spectacular failure in Vietnam--and has since morphed into whatever buzzword-laden claptrap this is.

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A most excellent post! If you're familiar with Iain McGilchrist's work (The Master and His Emissary), his analysis of the differences between those who are Right Hemisphere Dominant and Left Hemisphere Dominant (in terms of their thinking and orientation) seems to really overlap with the distinctions you point out between good and bad leaders. (John Carter at Postcards from Barsoom had some posts on this theme, e.g., https://barsoom.substack.com/p/left-and-right-brains-and-politics, as did Winston Smith at Escaping Mass Psychosis, e.g., https://escapingmasspsychosis.substack.com/p/the-master-betrayed-1?s=r.) Your analysis also sheds some interesting light on the growing competency crisis in America (and the West generally), where we've been promoting leaders based on their mastery of symbolic knowledge, but they lack any concrete skills or any ability to tie their academic theories to anything real in any meaningful way; so we have a leadership class that can write bestselling books on leadership full of neat aphorisms, but cannot actually lead anyone in any way that yields tangible, real-world improvements. Add to that all the DEI nonsense and regular Peter Principle tendencies, and you have a surefire recipe for mediocrity.

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The problem follows a pattern where people often mistake a metric for the thing its measuring (or a simulacra of actual leadership?)

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Thanks for this review, I enjoyed reading it!

Your reading of the (highly ambiguous) definition of management from the book strikes me as very uncharitable. A lot of “disappointing people” is just saying no to things they want, without there necessarily being any deception; so it doesn’t imply the awfulness you adscribe to it.

It’s a bad definition, but why cast it in the worst possible light when it’s already bad?

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The question of whether one can know how to manage without knowing anything in particular reminds me of the puzzle that kicks off the Ion: how can rhapsodes speak more eloquently on war than generals, or on wagons than a wagonwright, or whatever, if they don't actually possess the chops of any of those professions? You can say they're just smooth talkers, but then how do they even manage to talk smoothly about all of these things?

Plato's own answer is that this obviously doesn't make any kind of rational sense, and so the rhapsodes must just be possessed by divine madness.. (Application to Big 3 left as an exercise.)

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