Is Leadership Necessary?

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.

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14 thoughts on “Is Leadership Necessary?

  1. AvatarFifteenth Reader

    We have midwits with terminal cases of Dunning Krueger in charge. People can be put in charge by demonstrating two things: competence or compliance. Midwits are just smart enough to be compliant, that is, they are very good at following Policies and Procedures. But when a truly competent person comes along and attempts to solve a problem without following Procedure, then he is rejected by the Dunning Krueger crowd. The midwit is not intelligent or competent enough to understand what the more intelligent person is trying to say. They mistake compliance for competence, and reject any solutions that are not within the Policies and Procedures manual.

    Eventually this affects all management, all the way up to the boardroom. And now compliance isn’t just the companies Policies and Procedures. It’s ideological compliance. And as compliance is equated with intelligence and also morality, non compliant people can no longer get any sort of hearing. The stupidity singularity has arrived.

    The Titanic has not only hit the iceberg, it has broken in two and is sinking to the cold, bitter depths of the North Atlantic. It was a nice civilization while it lasted.

    1. AvatarMaus

      +1. This Reader gets it. Compliance=competence is a masterful instantiation of TSS. Truly, how many of us find Sev a kindred spirit because we too retired from the fray upon realizing that, despite an abundance of competence, we’d never again receive a hearing? Bugmen comply. Formerly, competent men led. Now all that remains is to critique, then to lament.

  2. AvatarThe Kaigat Of Wands

    Clearly leadership or its absence used to matter greatly. You can make a good case, for instance, for the argument that had Fredrick III lived there would have been no WWI and therefore no Russian Revolution or WWII.

    Nowadays I’m not so sure, like Severian I wonder if we’re just right on the tipping point where modern society has become so complicated that it doesn’t matter – nobody’s in charge and nobody can be in charge, it’ll just keep stumbling along until the machine stops. I do see a chance for better times in this though, but only a chance. It would be different in different countries but here it might take the form of separation into more manageable and culturally homogeneous units. There’s a strong tendency amongst us to expect (wish?) for the apocalypse but that’s not necessarily the only possibility.

  3. AvatarMBlanc46

    This might be tangential or it might pertain to a previous state of the system. Leadership requires some sort of ownership. You get to try to be the leader of X because you own X. Corporatization dissipates and erodes ownership. The buck doesn’t stop with the CEO, because when it comes down to it, the CEO is just an employee, albeit one with a golden parachute. Financialization takes things a step further and dissipates and erodes corporatization. The formal owners of the enterprise have a completely different set of objectives to the ostensible objectives of the enterprise. The objective of the owners might be the destruction of the enterprise, as, for example, seems to be the case with Sears, Roebuck. The guys who seem to be the ultimate owners aren’t really in control of anything. They’re simply trying to keep all the balls in the air long enough to make their pile before things collapse, as with Archegos Capital.

  4. AvatarWOPR

    I think the High and Mighty believe they are on the verge of complete automation. Therefore they can get rid of the mass of humanity. They aren’t even close, but they believe it.

    OT: Anyone know the name of the short sci-if story about the computer that won an interstellar war? I can’t remember it. It was how everyone was celebrating because the war was over and were praising the computer. The computer was huge of course, because this was the 50’s/60’s. Anyways, three guys were talking. The first guy was responsible for feeding the computer data. He admitted he selected the data fed because he knew a lot of it was junk. The next guy processed the data and admitted to tweaking the results because a lot of the output was nonsensical. The last guy was responsible for giving the military the information. He flipped a coin if the actions were contradictory.

  5. Avatartexinole

    Wow for an ivory tower vet you sure have corporate SOP down pat. The only whitepill I can offer is the situation is ripe for real leaders to make hay, and by example show another way. Alienation is a vacuum.

  6. AvatarJoseph Moore

    Re: Great Men. When reading the history of compulsory schooling in this fine country, couldn’t help notice all the mediocrities who rose to high positions by – sheer dogged determination? Dumb luck? Mann, William Torey Harris, Barnard, – these are not brilliant men, but they got to design and implement the schooling system that snuffs out whatever spark of intelligence that might exist in the typical student to this day.

    John Dewey was brilliant – evil, but brilliant. Can’t think of any others of the founders of the American public school system who would routinely be the smartest guy in a typical working class bar.

  7. Avatartoastedposts

    I’ve noticed before that in America’s history, it’s never really had any great common skill at organizing large enterprises. Usually anything that gets big, gets incompetent really fast. The military was *usually* an obtuse bureaucracy. America usually got into serious trouble, then had a genius show up out of “nowhere” and fix the problem entirely against all established convention.

    “Nowhere” being, as far as I can tell, somewhere that such people were left alone to live life on their terms and learn all the things they would eventually end up needing. The fronteir. Some self-owned farm somewhere. A lab or workshop. Anywhere that there wasn’t a taskmaster or Taylorist standing behind them with a stopwatch wanting to know why they were wasting company time.

    As for automation: Good god, “machine learning” is a bag of cheap tricks, some of which do things that have promise, but are being milked to infinity and beyond by hype-artists. Probably to reassure our overclass that soon all us peasants will be superfluous to the maintenence of their lifestyle. Its utter nonsense and it has been having pernicious effects even without the malevolence.

    Neural networks are a giant bag of parameters that fit an output function to a ton of inputs. The process of “learning” requires tens of millions of labeled examples. A two-year old can learn to distinguish an animal from the background of an image with a few examples, can learn to walk up stairs and balance without being corrected millions of times. NNs mimic *some* of the things that neurons appear to do in a vast minority of cases.

    A NN is an extremely simple alien-gizmo from another universe. You can think of it like one of Lovecraft’s critters from beyond space and time, which is more or less why a lot of what they barf up when attempting to mimic imagery has creepy nonsense-stuff going on in the background: It doesn’t understand space, it doesn’t understand time, it doesn’t understand what its actually doing, it doesn’t know it exists within a world, that its input represents an image or a sound, and its output is hooked up to the steering wheel of a car. Its entire experience of our world was from the training set, and everything else about it is random. Even if the critter you hooked up was “brilliant” (whatever that means in the context of something with no world), it wouldn’t be able to do anything with such a narrow experience of the world.

    Ants behave more intelligently in the world. In fact, they meet up and talk to each other with their antennae when they cant lay down scent-trails! They do this with less than a million neurons! What we have is closer to an ascended *thermostat* than an ant, much less a God to which you can surrender your understanding of the world to. It isn’t going to tell you how to run the company you didn’t build and don’t understand but were handed by your ivy-league network of friends.

    Anyway, AI is interesting. We know thinking/awareness/autonomy is possible, we see it being done in the world all around us. We have good reason to believe we have devices in which we can represent and reproduce thinking (because they can represent any informational process (Turing completeness)). It’s something that should be a sublime voyage of discovery, like the exploration of the world: learning what the awareness is, and how to make minds. An epoch-making quest. Instead, every small step is being exploited to the hilt by sociopaths in mad desperation to sweep aside the remainder of mankind. Diminishing us, instead of elevating us. Same thing happeend with nuclear physics. Aviation too only lasted half a century as the creative tool of free men before becoming war-machines and cattle-cars-in-the-sky.

    1. SeverianSeverian Post author

      I agree AI and the rest are mostly hype. I’m not one of those who looks forward to a robot butler in every pantry, a self-driving car in every garage. But I DO think there are lots of things that can be automated the old fashioned way that haven’t — fast food being the most obvious example, because it’s already happening. Z Man has pointed out that lots of court dockets could be cleared by an auto-judge (“do you wish to plead down to possession Y/N?”), a real WebMD would reduce a lot of clinic time, etc.*

      *That’s already kinda happening, and I for one couldn’t be happier. One of the few things I really dig about Gook Flu is that it has squashed so much of the bureaucratic bullshit in semi-routine chores like doctor’s visits. I remember my last pre-COVID checkup — seven forms and 30 minutes waiting in the lobby, plus another 15 in the room, before “my” doc came in, read my blood pressure off the chart, asked me how I was feeling, and told me to come back in a year. My annual physical fell during the first, most panic-stricken part of the “lockdown,” and it took five minutes — a phone call, a quick “any changes in your health?”, and we’re all good. Going to the library is a hoot, too — order the stuff online, cruise by and pick it up, neato. And the best part is that the truly epic sit-on-your-ass-all-day professions — teaching, librarian — are the worst Branch Covidians, so they’re putting themselves out of business, and I for one couldn’t be happier.

  8. AvatarNuke1776

    A few thoughts:

    1. Clown World is hyper-feminized to prevent Great Men from ever rising again. I doubt that can last, as the cracks in the effeminate machine are starting to show.
    2. I think the issue with automation and proceduralization is that those systems ultimately stem from an intent to prolong the functionality of complex organizations and systems. But they almost always fail to capture and transfer the knowledge and wisdom that the engineers and workers who created and operated the systems to subsequent generations as the originals retire or quit. The result is generational decay where people in the organization after sufficient turnover has occurred can’t even comprehend why the procedures exist in the first place.

    A good counter example of this is the nuclear Navy compared with the rest of the Navy. No part of the Navy is more heavily proceduralized than the nuclear Navy (except, perhaps, the nuclear weapons side, when I say nuclear Navy, I mean the submarine/carrier reactor operators). But they are trained endlessly to actually understand the reasons for those procedures, the theory behind how the reactor works, what the risks and consequences are, how important it is to take prompt action, etc., etc., etc. Prospective operators spend a year in the classroom before they’re allowed to touch anything in a training environment and then a year of prototype training before they do it live on a ship. The process is rigorous and attrition is very high. The standards when at sea do not slacken, and given the undermanned nature of the ships, the workload is grueling, so attrition is still high even after completing training. The point is that procedures serve those organizations well, but only because every new crop of sailors that comes in has the right knowledge and understanding beaten into them. Even then, they still make mistakes, but the Navy’s nuclear power track record is impeccable. Compare with the number of planes that have crashed or ships that have collided, and you can see the difference.

    But everything I just described would be impossible to implement in GlobalMegaCorp because no one would stick around and it costs too much. So instead, even in situations where the consequences are similarly extreme as operating a nuclear reactor (and, really, a plane crash will kill far more people than a reactor accident) all we get is doofuses following procedures they don’t understand and skipping half the steps because they don’t feel like it that day anyway.

    1. SeverianSeverian Post author

      I saw lots of that “built for attrition” stuff back in my working stiff days. As texinole noted, I wasn’t always an egghead; I spent some time out in the real world, including a few disastrous years in GloboHomoCorp.

      Long and uninteresting story, but suffice it to say that the stuff the Boomers told us about working your way up from the mail room actually did happen back then — I turned a summer “internship” (back when those involved real work) into an entry level gig, and briefly a management gig. “Internship” in this case meant “phone monkey in a boiler room-type operation” — all perfectly legal, let me hasten to say, or at least it was back then, but the upshot was, the attrition rate was brutal, by design. This company started all new hires on the phones, expecting to lose at least half the “class” (and they really were classes, the Training Department was one of the biggest in the company) within six weeks. If you made it through your phone tour — 18 months, if I remember right — you were eligible to apply for other jobs within the company. That way, the Marketing (or whatever) department didn’t have to worry that prospective hires didn’t know the products, were only kicking the tires before going off to “find themselves” backpacking through Europe, or whatever. It was a pretty good system…

      …except that “taking phone call after phone call, pacifying pissed-off customers who are irate about your product failing” is an entirely different thing from “selling product,” to say nothing of all the other company functions. Being a phone monkey meant following a flowchart, all lines of which led to one goal: Get the caller off the phone without having to refund any money. Selling product was the exact opposite of that — totally different skillset, totally different ethos. Yeah, you knew the product cold, that was the system’s big advantage, but what to do with that knowledge?

      And now, as you say, you’re too expensive an asset to fail. I saw lots of my “classmates” move on to marketing, and fail miserably, but continue to be employed by marketing, because GloboHomoCorp had by now put two, two and a half years into them and didn’t want to have to invest in the process all over again. So the marketing department soon became grossly inefficient — I’m sure I don’t have to tell y’all that an organization can only carry so much dead wood, and that number is very small — and so did all the other places the ex-phone monkeys went, because those phone monkey skills don’t translate to anything.

      Their solution, of course, was direct hiring, which made everything worse. The only way to find out if you’re any good at sales is to sell; training helps a little, but not much, so Marketing had the same attrition rate as before, if not higher. Meanwhile, the boiler room couldn’t fill desks, because word got around that if you got hired as a phone monkey, you were a phone monkey for life. Actually fixing the system would’ve required a ground-up redesign, and that would’ve cost way too much, so they kept spot-welding patches onto the previous patches until that company no longer exists. RIP, phone monkeyville, you taught me many valuable lessons before you went to that big Dow Jones Industrial Average in the sky.

  9. Avatarcontrariandutchman

    When a Great Leader shows up you know it precisely because he knows where and how to intervene.

    That’s not new, when the procedures by which the Roman republic had been run for centuries began breaking down Maris and Sulla knew where and how to intervene to give it a new lease on life. Not without cost, including a civil war between themselves, a new lease on lie nonetheless.

    When that new lease on life ran out, Gaius Octavius knew where and how to intervene to turn the republic into the empire, with an entire new set of procedures that would last several centuries. Severely flawed procedures as the problem of legitimacy was never resolved, but good enough for the empire to last centuries rules by mediocre and submediocre men.

    That organisations are run by the mediocre and submediocre, who push out the able, isnt new, i dont thin automation has really changed anything here. And the corporate world does occasionally demonstrates that at least sometimes leadership is allowed to rise to the occasion and can pull a company away from the path to bankruptcy.

    1. SeverianSeverian Post author

      It’s not new, I agree, but it’s faster. Orders of magnitude faster, and that’s a new thing. Back in the days, obvious problems took decades, sometimes lifetimes, to fully manifest. That same speed allows for ever-greater reliance on automation, and that, too, is new. So is the other consequence of information velocity, the ability to micro-manage.

      What you have, then, is a lot of people who fancy themselves Great Men, but who are actually sub-mediocre, who have the ability to constantly intervene in complex automated systems they don’t have the brains to know they don’t understand. Imagine if Marius or Augustus had to deal with an entire Empire’s worth of centurions who were constantly monkeying with things in real time. Meanwhile, the other half of the Empire’s centurions are letting obvious problems ride, because hey, the computer will handle it….

      1. Avatarcontrariandutchman

        Marius or Octavian would crucify a whole lot of centurions and appoint new ones, rinse and repeat until the legions are functional again.

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