Sunday, February 04, 2007

Still Waters

I have a friend who worked with me for many years. This gentleman is active in his church and a doting father and husband. He is a productive worker in his company and a community volunteer who often finds himself in positions of responsibility. It’s not clear why this happens. He’s very quiet; he has a policy of not volunteering. He always says he’s too busy. He never promotes himself. Yet he seems to know everyone and everyone knows him. He is never thought of when people discuss technical talent, yet he is always learning and always one step ahead of where I think I ought to be going. He never loses his cool, but he often seems to be frustrated, which he indicates with a very dry humor. And he always ends up in charge of something.

He and I worked in some difficult situations for some bad bosses. In those situations he served as a sounding board for disaffected individuals, and I believe he managed to rectify some situations with some under-the-table tactics that I never fully understood. After a few years of working with him, I compared, in my mind, the current management to his example -- and found the current management wanting. I began to encourage him to seek a promotion. I began quietly campaigning for the idea with some people I knew, but it never happened because my friend didn’t want it to happen. He didn’t want the limelight. He didn’t need the glory. He didn’t want to rock the boat.

Now, we all know people like this. Supremely competent, level-headed, socially adept and unambitious. Compare them to the people who actually get into high offices. I have often said that our government would improve if we were to select our officials randomly from a phone book. The people that do get elected are lackluster, hypocritical dimwits, with many exceptions of course. The problem is that people like my friend really could never get very far in a political situation. They are insufficiently nasty and selfish.

When they move up, you usually find people like my friend in positions like assistant director, liaison to the president, treasurer, vice chair, head of the decorations committee. They understand everything that is going on. They know what needs to be fixed, but they refuse to impose their personality on the process. Successful politicians are not like that, but they work with people like that.

The problem with our democracy, as I see it, is that far too many wise and competent individuals are languishing in the backwaters, which is precisely what they want, of course, but it is not what we want. We want the right people to move up and the wrong people to stay out of power. The algorithm of government today does not work that way. How do we change the algorithm? If every such individual were to move up one level in the social/governmental/military hierarchy, I believe there would be revolution of competence with far-reaching effects.

A management consultant once told me that the secret of success is to steadily expand your sphere of influence. It’s a very simple formulation. I don’t think it has helped me a whole lot over the years, but I have come to see how it applies. My friend doesn’t care about his sphere of influence. He only cares about his circle of friends. As a strategic approach to enhancing American democracy, I believe we should look at mechanisms that leverage the social talents of these backwater sages. I have a few ideas in mind.

2/4/2007 5:14 PM

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At Sunday, February 04, 2007 8:01:00 PM, Blogger Steve said...

Have you seen this JJ?

Atlantic Monthly - Surprise Party

Unity08 - Subject of the article.

Regarding your friend, I remember reading something years back about how engineers are frequently considered unambitious, when in reality it's that they have better self-knowledge - they know better what they want - than the business types. Something like that. I don't know, but it sounded good to me.

At Tuesday, February 06, 2007 2:34:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Thanks for the link. I see that you've blogged about the idea yourself. While I certainly wish that we could pick candidates closer to the center, I see some systemic problems with the idea.

The Founders original idea was that we should balance the top. The Vice President would be whoever came in second in the Presidential race. This would have been a good idea except for human nature. The runner up was, as we would expect today, from the "other" party. As a result, the VP did everything he could to sandbag the President's efforts.

Since there is basically a winner-take-all system in the US, everybody splits into just two parties. The logic of a third party in the US is just to serve as a spoiler. Look what's happening in the Democratic Party today. Hillary would like to move right to pick up centrist Republicans. She can't afford to move too far because some Deaniac will open a new party on the left. The same logic applies symmetrically on the Republican side. The result is that you always have candidates at the quartile positions on the political spectrum, but never at the median or the extremes. This is actually good because it gives people a motive to work for their candidate and it punishes extremists.

By taking their slice out of the middle, Hamilton Jordon, et al., will be enabling leftward movement of the Democrats and rightward movement of the Republicans. Most likely the new party can't get elected, but the ticket that does prevail will be more extreme.


At Tuesday, February 06, 2007 2:38:00 PM, Blogger jj mollo said...

Yes, my friend knows what he wants. He wants to keep a low profile. But we don't really want him to. He's too competent and sensible to hide his lamp under a bushel. We need to give him a little push -- not a big push -- a little push toward responsibility at a higher level. We'll leave it up to people at his new level to decide whether he's OK for the next level.


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