I forget who said “History is but the biographies of great men,” but I largely agree with it. If you add the modifier “or the lack thereof,” I’m all but 100% on board. So many crises were only handled because a Great Man stepped up to the plate… and all of those crises became crises, almost universally, because there wasn’t some Great Man around to deal with them before they blew up. I don’t want to get lost on a tangent here, so I’ll simply mention Roman history, which is littered with both Great Men, and crises which fell to Mediocre Men by default. Study the latter.
But that’s the thing, here in our new GloboHomo world: Are Great Men even possible anymore? How would we even go about starting to identify a Leader, and, once identified, what is there for him to do?
There are two huge countervailing trends here in Clown World. The first is automation. We all know about the SS Dumbass stuck in the Suez, and I’m sure everyone has heard the saga of the Boeing 737, so let’s not belabor it. It’s sufficient to point out that pretty much everything, everywhere, is all-in on automation, and the trend is increasing. To take just one small example: thanks to the combo of Kung Flu and the totally legitimate, not at all fraudulent Cloward-Pivenite in the White House, fast food will be all-robotic within a decade. The only entry-level career in “food service” will be the guy who goes from store to store, lubing the robots’ ball bearings.
Against this, communication speed allows for ever-increasing micromanagement. Again, consider fast food. McDonald’s is set up in a very neat cellular structure that was perfect for the early 1950s, when the whole “franchise” concept really took off.* Most of the tasks are routinized, the org chart is clearly defined, and the areas of responsibility don’t overlap at all. I don’t know for sure, but I’d wager long money that before the bloat-for-bloat’s-sake ethos of the 1980s, the Mickey D’s home office was about twenty guys, all “regional director” types. The higher-ups would strategize regionally or globally, while the lower-tier guys were basically quality control, making sure everything remained standard worldwide. Everything else was left to the franchisees, but they had the training and structure to handle their own areas of responsibility.
Here again, I don’t know — not being an employee of the Golden Arches — but I’d bet even longer money that McD’s now has a zillion middle managers who don’t do anything but monkey in the day-to-day operations of individual franchises, simply because they can, and can’t figure out anything better to do with their time to justify their paychecks. If you want an example that definitely happened, look no further than the Bin Laden raid. The whole point of a special forces team is to operate independently — so much of the godawful stuff they do to their candidates is specifically designed to measure their ability to function independently when the pressure’s on — but Obama was there in the war room, watching the whole thing unfold…
…and monkeying around with the mission right up to the very end. Now, I’m willing to believe the very worst about the Kenyan Communist, but even I can’t imagine he believes his own bullshit enough to think he knows anything about running a commando raid. He wasn’t there to “help” the SEALs complete the mission; he was on the horn because, in his tiny little mind, that’s just what Presidents do. They make decisions, even when they know nothing about anything; even when everything is specifically designed to run without them making decisions.
See what I mean? You’ve got middle managers increasingly trying to micromanage systems that are increasingly automated. Worse than that, the middle mangers themselves are part of a micromanagement feedback loop. Worse, because the middle managers can’t be automated, because they don’t really do anything in the first place… but consider what happens when something unexpected pops up, something outside the Policies and Procedures manual. If the robots can’t handle it, the organization’s cellular structure kicks in, booting the decision to the next higher up. But they don’t know what to do, because all they’ve ever done is micromanage robots. So they kick it up the chain, and half the time the next higher up kicks it back down the chain, because hey, look, the P&P manual says this kind of thing is supposed to be handled at the district-manager level….
After the two micro-managing middle managers go back and forth with each other for a while, they kick it one level further up the chain, and now it’s really a problem, because by this point everyone is outside their wheelhouse. How do you deal with that? Worse, what happens when the original problem had to do with the automated systems themselves, as in the case of the Boeing 737? The problem isn’t (or isn’t just) the doohickey malfunctioning, or that the doodad isn’t properly interfacing with the gizmo. All of those are, theoretically, just engineering problems that can be solved with more engineering. The problem is that there are some things that simply can’t be automated…
…but who’s going to make that decision, especially when the entire corporate ethos — from recruiting to training to promotion — is, itself, almost entirely automated?
[Hey, hold up a sec. I know you’re tempted to stop reading at this point and jump into the comments, to tell me that the real problem with the 737 is that Boeing is Committed to Diversity(TM), such that the entire management is full of powerskirts and dindus, and all the actual engineering has been outsourced to Bangladesh. I know, and that’s exactly what I mean when I say that everything about the company has been automated. Their personnel decisions are on autopilot, too].
What’s needed in this situation is leadership, real leadership, and there’s simply no way anyone, even the most natural Napoleon, could step up and provide it, because he’s been automated out of existence. Leadership isn’t just “making a decision.” It entails understanding the situation, and if you’ve been following me — and I know I’m not expressing myself very well this morning — you’ll see that “understanding the situation” is literally impossible for micro-managers who came up via automation. To return to the Bin Laden raid for a second: what if it had gone wrong? What could Barky really DO in that situation?
He can’t scrub the mission – they’ve already breached the compound. He can’t assume tactical command — knowing him, that’s exactly what he’d try to do, but the SEAL team leader would simply turn off his radio. Imagine poor Hussein, running around the war room with his dress over his head, squealing out “orders” that the men on the ground couldn’t possibly comply with, even if they could hear him, which they can’t.
The point of this long exercise, y’all, is that in the state of inertia in which we find ourselves, it doesn’t have to be anything dramatic to set off the collapse. I don’t deny that there are real actors with real plans doing their thing in Washington, though we peons of course have no idea who any of them are. The problem is, all those nameless, faceless somebodies owe a lot of their success to automated systems, and — much worse — all their unknown schemes rely on systems running completely on autopilot. One power shortage, and you’ve got a huge container ship stuck in the Suez. One unexpected gust of wind mid-flight, and you’ve got a giant aircraft splattering itself all over a mountainside.
Even tiny, minor, seemingly inconsequential things can set off huge problems, because not only can the automated systems not handle them, but the human “backups” to the automated systems are, themselves, automated systems. How would a potential Leader even know where to intervene?
*The history of fast food really is fascinating. You could spend a long time down the Wiki rabbit hole that way. Check the history of McD’s, for instance, and you’ll see that it got started by two guys who learned the tricks of the trade from White Castle — yeah, the slider guys. Clicking on that link, you’ll see what an innovative operation White Castle was, with its own internal house magazine and everything. It seems that White Castle was the Xerox of its day — it had all the cool shit that would enable later companies to get huge and dominate their markets, but they never could figure out what to do with it.**
**Xerox PARC (Palo Alto Research Center) had optical mice, graphical user interfaces, etc. as early as the mid-1960s, if I recall correctly. Their R&D was second to none, but the marketing boys really fell on their faces.Loading Likes...