Merit, Worthiness, and Leadership

Wisdom has it that hard work shows good merit or reward.  Read the textbook, take good notes, study hard and your efforts will merit you an ‘A’ in the course.  And in the world of work, a career is built using this merit example.  The Tom Browns and Horatio Alger success stories touted as the best example of American Spirit all boys should want to follow if they wish to become a credible success in society were the course of merit.  Yes, Brown and Alger dutifully started at the bottom sweeping the floors and emptying the basins most cheerfully.  This earned them their next promotion to lowly paid clerk where they could count on twenty years of service before being considered for any further promotions.  And again, they came to work early, smiled all day in gratitude for living a life of meager rewards, stayed late and then went home as happy as they had been as children.  Then one day the daughter of the wealthy business owner is in a carriage and the horses bolt, her life is threatened.  Quickly Brown or Alger, which ever one happens to have the luck of being in the right place at the right time, intervenes and stops the carriage at the risk of his own life.  The wealthy business owner is grateful, sees that the young man has promise, and promotes him on the spot to vice president for his ability to make quick and correct decisions.  And as punishment, he gets to marry the daughter assuring that his actions merited the correct reward.  Of course later pundits have sneered that Brown’s and Alger’s rise in station in life was due to chance occurrence and not hard work.  That the puritan work ethic mattered for the masses and not the select few.  Maybe so, but the masses do have their collective day.

I remember in the fifties reading of men and women, who while working in Russian factories (back when it was the USSR) of being given medals for their heroic work.  Imagine working in a factory and your job is the tighten bolts on the tractors being manufactured.  Because you are the heroic revolutionary example of the people’s worker you set records daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly in the number of bolts tighten.  That says a lot about quality control and work flow processes.  My guess is that you would have to have been on uppers to set that kind of record.  But I digress.  This example really follows the cant of from each according to his ability to each according to his need.  Here merit is need.  Or as Eliza’s father would have said,” Being undeserving means I get less, a lot less.  But my needs are a great as the deserving, in fact, much more.  I don’t need less, I need more, much more.”  Well, so much for moral philosophy.  We often think of work in terms of quantity and quality of work done.  If I am more productive than you I merit more pay, more benefits, and so forth.  Of course I may not be in a position where I can be more productive.  Any work where I would be a member of a labor union or an assembly line work would prohibit me from being more productive.  But in a position which could be paid as piece work then it is possible to hue to such standard.

When I was in the service as a young man I was led to believe that promotions were earned, merited by hard work.  Keep your weapon clean, make sure that your fatigues were starched with sharp creases (yes, your enemy, upon seeing how sharply you are dressed on the battlefield will be willing to immediately surrender to your superior presence), act immediately upon given an order, score highly on all tests, and so forth, and you will merit a promotion.  Yet those who were perceived as more worthy got the early promotions while the rest of us had to wait.  Why should that be?  Later on I would read the various studies by university psychologists that those individuals who were perceived and more handsome or pretty and who had the more pleasing personalities earned more income.  And not just a few pennies more, either.  The difference could be ten to fifteen percent more.  And the advancements came earlier and more rapidly.  Looks like merit has an undeserved reputation, one that is inflated.  Why is worthiness the real standard?  Ah, because if we were to choose our coworkers we tend to choose those with whom we can more easily interface.  It is about cooperation and a smiling face tends to lead us to believe it will be a more cooperative face.  If our coworker has a dour disposition we tend to trust him less.  Essentially, those with great personalities need to prove themselves far less often than those with less that good personalities.  Did you ever notice that neither Brown or Alger were ever physically portrayed as less than handsome and less than charming?  That was the lesson every boy, and girl, had to learn.  If you weren’t born with beauty or even passable fairness then your chances for success that depended of the goodwill of others was considerably lessened.  Only when results count do these advantages diminish.

Leadership is about worthiness in many ways.  In times of peace it is the bright and beautiful who make general.  the rest of us haven’t a chance.  In World War Two more field commanders were sacked for incompetence.  Men who had the most polished boots and brass often did not make the best leaders.  War is a business of results and not image.  Yes, for the folks back home to continue to support a war one needs to have an image of winning and heroism, and so forth.  But to win on the battlefield one needs to make the other fellow die for his country.  Leadership in war is about having the confidence of those whom you lead.  Without it you charge the enemy line by yourself.  Leadership is about directing the activities of those in your work unit.  And the higher your position the more you need to show that the confidence of those you lead is justified.  One builds trust by being trustworthy, by being true to others according to their definition.  In a platoon the new commanding officer is assumed worthy.  But any officer that believes he need not demonstrate that trust his men have given him is a fool.  Same with any supervisor or manager.  The workers will give him the benefit of their trust but he must continue to earn it.  One of the things that a leader must explain to his group is that he is expected to give the same sort of trust and support to his superior.  Every level of leadership has the requirement to socialize the subordinates to a greater or lesser degree depending on the level.  A pyramid of command can only be flattened so far.  Span of control cannot be exceeded without dire consequences.  The idiocy of various management fads will only cause the loss of money and customers.  In war, bad management costs lives.  Lose too many lives and you lose the war.  Worthiness and leadership is about results.

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