Keynes referred to them as the ‘madmen in authority’, referring to the policy makers and top financial and business executives, who rule our world. Maybe ‘madmen’ doesn’t quite capture their essential characteristics today. After all, mainstream economists would argue they are not mad, but wholly rational in their unwavering pursuit of self-interest without regard to any broader, more enlightened consideration. In a talk to TED’s global conference (TED – Technology Entertainment Design – bills itself as a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading), economist Tim Harford identified a ‘terrible affliction’, one that the ‘madmen’ might be suffering from. It was both ‘debilitating to individuals and corrosive to society’. He referred to as ‘the God complex’, the symptoms of which could be simply described as: ‘no matter how complicated a problem, you have an absolutely overwhelming belief that you are infallibly right in your solutions.’
The UK coalition government has more than its fair share of sufferers: Andrew Lansley at Health, Michael Gove at Education, and, of course, Prime Minister Cameron, self-confessed expert in how to manage hospital wards, deal with binge drinking, solve racism in football and make child adoption processes fairer and faster, to name but a few recent self-confessions. These are individuals convinced of their infallibility, despite the complexity of the issues they confront, and not prepared, unless forced, to consider the possibility they might be wrong and other solutions might be better.
God complex sufferers atop the financial sector have an even more immediate impact than do government ministers, being manically focused on the extraction of value for the benefit of shareholders. They really seem to think they are doing right, despite their destruction of real economy jobs. While in the real economy itself, sufferers have an even more direct impact. Sumantra Ghoshal described them as the ‘ruthlessly hard-driving, strictly top-down, command-and-control focused, shareholder-value obsessed, win-at-any-cost business leader’. Alastair Dryburgh in a Management Today article examines the concept of these ‘driving’ top managers. At first sight, ‘driving’ seems to imply ‘determination, decisiveness and dynamism’, but Dryburgh points out it has many more negatives. For instance, the implication that the driver is the only one who knows where they’re going, that the driven will resist or at best follow with reluctance, and that there can be no two-way communication, so useful suggestions from the front line will not get through. One way or another, the consequential ultimate failure is absolutely inevitable.
Harford’s alternative to God complex infallibility, is the trial and error approach which he showed to be the effective route to solving truly complex technical problems where the thousands of potentially relevant variables are simply beyond calculation. Problems involving people in organisations raise complexity to a whole new level where the solutions, though rewarding and interesting, are quite beyond the God complex obvious with its multifarious unintended consequences.
The progressive, trial and error, Darwinian way to a more successful future, can be woven into the way organisations work. It requires involving people throughout the organisation in contributing to its development and progress. Degrees of co-operation, in all its forms, from sharing specific decisions to full-on co-ownership, suggest ways of management that would be far more effective than relying on God complex sufferers to drive forward.
An interesting example is the highly successful, hi-tech, non-hierarchical co-operative, W L Gore & Associates instanced by Simon Caulkin in a late Observer article. Business leaders at Gore are those who attract followers; if an innovatory project doesn’t attract sufficient followers it doesn’t get done. God complex ‘drivers’ would not survive long at Gore. Or anywhere else, come to that. In the long run, driving leads almost inevitably to extinction.