02 September 2009

On kakistocracy

"Kakistocracy". Wonderful word! I confess I have only just come across it, via the linked post, although Google has almost 29,000 links.

It means "government by the worst", and the very existence of the label rings bells for many of my acquaintance. The linked article takes a quite tightly-defined approach to its examination. I am not as academically constrained.

The Peter Principle (Peter and Hull, 1968) asserts that "in  a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence". This was expanded by the Dilbert Principle (Adams, 1995) that "leadership is nature's way of removing morons from the productive flow.” (Apologies for being lazy and using Wikipedia links. But both sources are humorous in intent. Correspondence to reality is a bonus...)

It's not as simple as that in reality. Let's look briefly at some variations.
  • My first serious job in education (apart from short-term locum posts in primary schools) was at the erstwhile Salford Technical College, in the Department of Business Studies and Management, headed by a certain G. H. in 1967. GH was a short balding tubby man with a comb-over who wore braces and his underpants outside his shirt. (All the previous information is factually true. I accept no responsibility for any contribution it may make to the formulation of a stereotypical image in your mind, however accurate that may be.)

    George (sorry!) was both incompetent and very successful. Under his leadership the department had grown from four to forty permanent full-time staff in six years, and student enrolments had increased to more than match that growth.

    In my previous job I had been introduced to the idea of the "sick leader". This seems an abstruse idea of no real importance, but it stuck in my mind because of its resonance with the wounded Fisher King in the Grail romances. Yes, that is indeed how my mind worked in those days...

    I did not make the connection until Tom M turned up after a couple of years as head of the marketing section. I don't know why he confided in me, but after six months he said, "GH is useless. If I'm to make anything of this section, it's entirely up to me. Unfortunately he'll get most of the credit." So he built up the section, both in spite of and because of the boss's incompetence. That is the genius of "sick leadership". It is of course risky...
  • I have perforce followed the career of another of my bosses. Without going into too much detail, this person left under a cloud. Nevertheless, their career path was upwards, and s/he re-emerged  as a Dean at another university where I was working, proceeding to adopt exactly the same tactics as had failed so spectacularly in his/her previous post but one.
There seems to be an invisible watershed somewhere in college and university hierarchies such that below it, incompetence leads to marginalisation and even dismissal (although it appears the route to that can be tortuous if this NY Times article is to be believed), but above it, it leads to being "kicked upstairs". And, in a kind of corporate cognitive dissonant denial, institutions and their leaders refuse to acknowledge what a disastrous appointment they have made, and provide effusive references to push the culprit even further up the ladder.

But where is that line drawn? And how do you know when you are above it?

Is there something about the culture of universities which makes them particularly susceptible to this pattern? After all, the two kinds of organisation cited in the linked article as fostering kakistocracy were Italian universities--and the Mafia.

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