All's Fair In War And Washington . . .

Dec. 21, 2004
. . . and in company politics.

Two candidates were competing to become chief executive of a midsized corporation located in the Bible Belt of northern Florida. One candidate was Joe Jakes, a homegrown man who had learned the business on the job, working his way up from coiled-wire specialist to production vice president of the Sleep Easy Mattress Co. The other candidate was Charles Coolidge, a professional manager who had been recruited by a local headhunter. The companys board of directors was a relatively unsophisticated assortment of locals that included the bank president, the school superintendent, a church minister, and miscellaneous progeny of the founding fathers who had inherited stock but knew little about business. Coolidge, a Harvard Business School graduate, knew he was up against seemingly unbeatable odds. He was an unknown competing with one of the hometown kids. But he wanted the job. He saw tremendous potential for growth and profits in this "Sleeping Beauty" company. It could be his springboard to a highly successful career. Charlie was no dummy. He did his homework. He discovered that, among other things, Jakes was a graduate of Bible City College and had a niece who was secretary to the mayor and a sister who was an actress at Bible Citys Grand Opry House. At the board meeting -- which was open to shareholders, most of whom were employees -- the candidates made their competitive bids for the position. Jakes made a brief, low-key, no-nonsense appeal based on his knowledge of the company, his years of experience, and his local knowledge. Coolidges effort, on the other hand, was a Machiavellian splendor. He addressed the naive, highly sectarian audience in ministerial, senatorial tones with this well-prepared speech: "Theres more to Joe Jakes than meets the eye, my friends. Are you aware, for example, that your quiet, unassuming Joe Jakes at the tender age of 18 was discovered matriculating behind the ivied walls of Bible City College? And did you know that during that same time he indulged in celibacy? But thats only half the story, folks, because it is vitally important that you know that while you saw him as your trusted production vice president, he was secretly practicing nepotism -- not once, mind you, but at least twice, and with his own sweet and innocent niece Susan. And, as if that wasnt enough, his sister Marybelle, with his encouragement, openly and profitably plied her trade as a thespian in your own Grand Opry House. But worst of all, my friends, Joe Jakes is known all over Bible City for his latent tendency toward overt extroversion. Surely you must think long and hard before you entrust the chief-executive position of your fine company to a man who so flagrantly and continuously flaunts his extracurricular interests in such a secretive and suggestive manner." You guessed it. Coolidge got the job and Jakes got the boot. That story is not preposterous fiction. The names of the individuals involved and the location were changed, but the event actually happened. Everything Coolidge said about Jakes was true, yet it was cast in cleverly conceived double-entendres that played to the boards and the communitys stereotypical prejudices. The result: a 180-degree difference between what was said and what was understood. Ill wager that some version of this story is played out in your company every day by clever people with personal agendas who learned their management principles at the knee of Niccolo Machiavelli. Its remarkable how much doublespeak we are subjected to each day. I have voted in presidential elections from Franklin Delano Roosevelt to William Jefferson Clinton, and the doublespeak emanating from Washington has never been more prevalent, more skillful, more insidious, or more potentially devastating than it is today. Spin artists abound. Straight talk is an anachronism. Washington is inhabited by elected representatives who are depriving their constituent cities of idiots. Most of them would be out of their depth in an empty bathtub. They have delusions of adequacy and prove it consistently by setting low personal standards and then failing to meet them. The kind of thinking and speaking that occurs in Washington today -- as well as in company boardrooms -- reminds me of Abraham Lincolns criticism of debate arguments made by Stephen Douglas, which he described as "thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had been starved to death." Sal F. Marino is a chairman emeritus of Penton Publishing Inc. and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected].

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