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