My long-time business associate, Larry Notvest, used a set of business and management principles that were both revealed and taught to me over two decades of our association. Larry unfortunately passed away in 1996, at age 52, way too young to allow us to bring our association to full fruition. Fortunately for me, before his untimely death, he had successfully passed most of those principles and the discipline to employ them on to me.
Larry was an avid advocate of the principles and ideas of Ayn Rand. I had read Ayn Rand novels as a teenager before I joined the US Navy and met Larry while serving in the Naval Security Group. However, he ignited in me a full appreciation of the clear departure from conventional wisdom and toward the objective truth of Rand’s principles and ideas that I hadn’t quite acquired in my previous reading. We spent literally hundreds if not thousands of hours together exploring various concepts while employing them in various ways through positions in military and civilian life. Over and over again we proved the practical aspects of Rand’s ideas in building and managing organizations for large-scale private business. One of the most successful concepts we developed had sort of an awkward name, but it always seemed apt: The “We-Are-Run-By-Idiots” (WARBI) principle. Most folks that first hear it think the principle is directed solely at the leadership of an organization. That’s only partially true.
WARBI is the effect that occurs when those being led have allowed their leaders to operate as idiots. Those followers will invariably identify their leaders as idiots without realizing that doesn’t actually remove any responsibility of the failure of the organization from themselves. The belief that they don’t have responsibility are collectivist concepts which seem to pervade much of business organization and the population at large in politics, neighborhood and community action. It seems so due to decades of training and practice throughout the land. More on that later.
Most any dysfunctional organization we ever encountered as consultants had the WARBI principle in operation. The workers blamed their condition on the “idiots” running the place. However, even a cursory observation always revealed it was the workers who aided and abetted ‘idiot’ behavior in their leaders. Larry and I thus concentrated our efforts on the bottom of the organization. We assisted them in using the methods that allowed them to have the power and insure the success of the organization regardless of the behavior of the managers. Better behavior from a manager only insured even greater success, but poor behavior could not preclude it, if the individuals in the organization functioned correctly. The most damaging was the belief and practice by the workers in the false and collectivist paradigm of “top-down management.”
It was made clear to them that no group of individuals was ever truly subservient to a leader unless they allowed it either subtly or overtly. In so doing, most times the managers adjusted their behavior to the changing behavior of the workers and the dysfunction would leave the entire organization. Those managers that didn’t adjust and remained bad actors were then easily replaced as their deficiencies were easily observable and not so well hidden in the overall dysfunction. The same methods worked right on up the chain, where lower level managers were taught to manage their managers.
We built or rebuilt many successful organizations using these methods. The times we failed is when the dysfunction was so embedded from top to bottom in the organization it was impossible to replace so many bad actors or we had no charter or authority to effect that. However, we found that it was then easy to predict that the entire organization was headed to a business or unit failure that would result in the organization’s elimination anyway, through deep business restructuring or bankruptcy which usually followed our departure.
The WARBI principle is now writ large across the landscape. The vast majority of people believe all of our problems lie with our leaders. We have reached the pinnacle of WARBI in the last election. It is now so common to think that ‘throwing the bums out’ or by putting the new “enlightened” leaders in will solve our problems without ever taking account of our own failures as employees, voters and citizens. President Obama barely hinted at the problem in his inaugural address. Of course, most liberal and conservative politicians of a certain stripe consciously (looters) or unconsciously (opportunists) feed off of the WARBI principle to maintain their power. In absence of a change from the bottom-up, they will continue such behavior.
In the America I grew up in that thinking was more foreign than common. Many more people understood that no one leader, or even group of leaders, could ever be the actual cause of our dysfunction. Not in America. In America prior to the last several decades, if our leaders were a problem it was because the American people were a big part of the problem and that was recognized much earlier in the process. America only worked, in any sense, because we all worked together under the same set of principles and many more (if not most) took responsibility to fix the problems. Our leaders were not dictators, but in fact, “first-among-peers” (does the term ‘citizen-legislator’ ring a bell?).
Today, everyone wants to be let off the hook and not take responsibility where it lies. The people allow bad behavior (or vote for it, time and again), so the leaders practice it. In the process our leaders are inexorably turning into authoritarian-dictators and the people allow it.
Virtually all organizations have become corrupted in the process, both government and civilian. Honesty, transparency and integrity are fast disappearing, even in non-secular religious and professional institutions. The looters and opportunists (who eventually also become looters) are taking over from top to bottom as the trend accelerates. The increasing corruption and scandals evident in the corporatist political and even non-secular institutions is the direct indication of that trend.
The reason our Republic is showing more and more signs of failing is not because we can’t find the right group of leaders. It is failing because the citizens expect not to carry the responsibility for our poor choices of leaders and our seeming inability (though again, it is abdication of responsibility) to correct the bad behavior of the ones we pick. The operation of such collective behavior is antithetically posed to the originating principles of our founding. The purpose of America is to have every American citizen possible be their own leader and elect a first-among-peers (that citizen leader or legislator thing again) who we all assist and who assist citizens in carrying out large goals and objectives. Instead, Americans have for too long been electing quasi-dictators and authoritarians at every level to tell them what to do so the people are off the hook when their neighborhood, community, company or even America fails.
Look inside and ask yourself; “Am I part of the problem, or part of the solution?” “Do I expect the peer-leaders I vote for (or allow) to solve my problems for me?” “Do I have as much responsibilty as they in solving problems that are larger than both of us?” “Have I really fulfilled my responsibility as a citizen by only casting my vote, or is much more of my involvement needed?” “What is the cost to me and my neighbors (or co-workers) of our lack of involvement and abdication of decision-making?”
The country may soon require honest answers to those questions or will simply take the path directed by inaction and complacency.