Sometimes…it’s better for a man just to walk away. But if you can’t walk away? I guess that’s when it’s tough.Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller
One of my previous employers was very fond of pop-psychology exams, and like most financial services firms I know of, that meant Myers-Briggs. I tested as an INTJ, God be praised, which was among the three or four Acceptable Results in finance. Psychology as a profession, of course, has disdained Myers-Briggs as hogwash for years, to the point that the continued popularity of MBTI testing has made its way into further psychological case studies which explored what might cause similar, if more general, mass resistance to scientific evidence.
Since the first time I took the test, it always seemed rather obvious that the test didn’t – couldn’t – measure innate personality traits. What it did do was tell employers how their employees wanted to be perceived. Rather more accurately, I can tell you, since ours is an audience comfortable playing six degrees of Lord John Maynard Keynes, it told employers how employees thought it would be beneficial to be perceived within their organization.
There was another mini-test I got in an interview once that was a bit more on the nose about the signaling component of these exams, although it still characterized the answers as being based on some fundamental way our brains are wired rather than a conscious choice of cartoon we’d like that executive to use to understand us. You’d simply be asked whether you thought life was a game to be won, a puzzle to be solved, a garden to be tended, that sort of thing. I think it was a variant of the Keirsey Temperaments. The point was that it sought to uncover not your personality, but your deep motivations. Again, it was utter hogwash as an insight into our true motivations – whatever those are – but still fascinating in what it told us about what the reasonably shrewd employee might think would be the correct signal, or at a minimum as the most desirable way to be perceived within an organization.
MBTI and similar pseudo-scientific astrological tools like this continue to be used not because of some deep institutional belief in their effectiveness at predicting employee behaviors and temperamental fits within organization. They are used because they are effective tools for collapsing the common knowledge about possible traits for employees with leadership potential. In every case I’ve observed, personality test results are delivered to test-takers with a list of famous celebrities and favored careers for executives with the different ‘personality types.’ You don’t have to be a strategic mastermind (i.e. an INTJ, obviously) to figure out what happens to test answers and practiced behaviors once the hungry, bright young stars in an organization read about the traits typically associated with successful CEOs or tech entrepreneurs. Increasingly, the roles and archetypes presented implicitly as the ideal in the results of these exercises look like visionary creatives and communicators – regardless of industry. Fifteen years ago, the Right Answer to the Keirsey question for almost anyone who wanted to be an executive was “life is a puzzle to be solved.” Today, the Right Answer to which would-be executives are nudged is “life is a game to be won.”
This is not an accident. Nor are the articles published seemingly every day telling you what a successful CEO does. Like this one two days ago in Inc. Or this one a couple months back in the New York Times. Or this one in Forbes. The frustrations we all have with increasingly abstracted work, too, are an obvious side effect. These are all minor, almost accidental parts of a bigger thing that is happening in every industry in the world. We are transforming every executive into a salesperson, we are actively cultivating common knowledge about the traits necessary to succeed as an executive salesperson, and we are slapping as many obedience collars on young professionals as possible to steer them toward desiring and wishing to be perceived as having those traits.
It’s a big deal.
Your dissent is noted, “CEOs and leaders have always had to sell” folks. Yes, leadership has always been about convincing internal and external audiences. Leaders must convince donors or capital to believe in their prospects. They must convince customers to believe in their products. They must convince employees to believe in their vision. If this is your argument, I don’t just hear you, I am you. Sure, I remember the days when a portfolio manager could still tell you with a straight face, “I don’t do much fundraising. I hired a team to do it so that I can stay at the office reading Ks and Qs and focusing on finding alpha.” But the first lesson I give any young professional is to disabuse them of the folly that they will be able to succeed on the basis of good models, good code or good analysis alone. Professional success in a service economy requires the ability to craft compelling arguments in multiple media to multiple audiences.
That isn’t what I’m talking about.
What I’m talking about is the transformation of every executive role into one which requires a missionary. In our language, that means someone who sees it as his or her job to create, maintain and promote a powerful narrative about an organization among an audience capable of sustaining it. Sometimes that means creating enduring cartoons, polarizing abstractions of complex ideas that appeal to a full-scale susceptible audience (and hamper the creation by competitors of a counter-narrative). Nike did that with its Kaepernick ads. Salesforce.com has done that. Sometimes that means appealing to memes, the persistent features of human culture and biology which condition us to certain responses to powerfully attractive or repellent ideas. Donald Trump has done this. AOC has done this. Sometimes that means creating a cult of personality that forces generationally brilliant visionaries into CEO jobs they’re lousy at in almost every respect, except for the ability to create a stock price-supportive narrative for an adequately polarized audience, that is. Hi, Elon.
I’m not even going to post the picture of the A Not-at-all Awkward Fireside Chat with Ben, Jerry and Jan that took place on 60 Minutes this week, much less any of the treacly sentiments that made their way into its transcript.
Look, if you don’t have a clear enough picture in your head of what I’m talking about, stare right into its hideous eyes:
There is a conference room somewhere in the bowels of SAP that produced this fearsome mantra – turning customers into fanatics, products into obsessions, employees into ambassadors, and brands into religions. Probably not in the Rhein Valley, where I’m sure it raised more than a few eyebrows. Maybe on the Main Line outside of Philly, I guess. But wherever it was spawned, it was almost certainly in consultation with some Bay Area-based “ideas” company that 15 years ago would have been called “Madison Avenue.”
This, friends, IS the recipe for a world of abstraction, for Fiat World: to turn every commercial activity and business relationship into a primal, emotional, value-expressive abstraction of the actual activity.
What do we do about this?
What’s the Clear-Eyed perspective? Here’s one man’s take:
- First, I think the clear-eyed person will recognize that the sum of all capital, intellectual property, executive time and attention that are devoted to corporate narrative creation net out to a zero sum exercise across the world economy. Hell, by comparison, the relative return-on-capital mindset of stock buyback programs may be among the most friendly policies to global economic health we have going today.
- Second, they will recognize that this is absolutely not the case on an institution-by-institution basis. As distasteful, bad for economic productivity, bad for economic growth, and bad for global happiness as SAP’s mantra may be, turning your brand into a religion is a dominant strategy in a Zeitgeist defined by competitive games. Of course it is a dominant strategy. SAP is telling its clients to control their own cartoon. But that’s not all it’s telling them.
- If you are acting as a principal, you can do whatever the hell you want. Invest in what you want. Manage your company how you want. If you are a steward or a fiduciary, however, you don’t get that luxury. You have to play the game. Unless you are willing to lose, you have to build a narrative, and you have to have a CEO / Executive Director / President capable of acting as the missionary of that narrative.
That’s where Full Hearts comes in: Creating the narratives about your brands that you need to compete doesn’t mean that you have to treat your clients, customers and employees like they don’t have sovereignty or agency. They do. The more important Full Hearts work I think we can do, however, is in our own lives. Authenticity, honesty and work, and a willingness to lose competitive games when the stakes are matters that affect only us, and not our charges.
This is brutally challenging territory to navigate. Sometimes it’s better for a man to walk away. But when you can’t walk away? That’s when it’s tough. It’s the do-you-develop-nuclear-weapons question writ very small, in which you know that what you do is part of a net drag on humanity, but in which you simultaneously know that you cannot responsibly do other than to participate.
So the framework above may not be satisfying. If that’s the case, then I offer you a simpler solution: If anyone at your company suggests a policy to turn customers into fanatics and brands into religions, kindly and with all the charm of that confirmed ENFP that you are, tell them to go to hell.
 Except, perhaps, inasmuch as they reduce the cost of capital in ways that facilitate incremental risk taking.