Don’t Let the Fools Drag You Down

I took the title of this post from Detective Harry Bosch in Michael Connolly’s, The Burning Room.

Bosch, one of my favorite fictional detectives, was encouraging his young partner to stay true to her potential and excel despite the pressures she will encounter from other detectives who excel at the “conform, comply, mediocre–don’t rock the boat” culture. Bosch might not be around to support her because he had just been suspended by the bureaucrats who don’t care about people: they care about statistics and going along to get along and they just can’t stand Bosch–I love the guy.

Each of us has fools in our lives determined to drag us down to their particular level of mediocrity. Then they won’t feel uncomfortable seeing in us what they don’t see in themselves because they choose ordinariness over excellence. Bosch spoke in the work context so I will limit my thoughts to my work experience.

I worked at the Star Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis and had many management jobs. The first fool I encountered was the smarmy union steward who, on my first day, taught me how to cheat on my expense account and warned me to not make other union members look bad. I didn’t pay any attention to him and set out to excel. So they sent the President of The Newspaper Guild to talk to me. I ignored him too.

Management had an equal share of fools. There was one exception: I worked for a wise, kind and good man named Charles Freeman. Those seven years were the most creative and productive of my career. Chuck modeled how great leaders become great people first. Chuck died unexpectedly and my life at work changed for the worse.

I worked for a vice president. There was nothing special about him. He didn’t initiate things; he didn’t finish things. He didn’t work hard: He came in late and left early. He nodded and smiled and did what he was told, even if what he was told was stupid. He could be cold and abusive to those below him. But he didn’t realize those things about himself. When he acted, he usually created a problem or blundered, and we cleaned up after him. Like so many executives, he excelled at maneuvering and survival, and I threatened his survival. I had a few unhappy and anxious years before I resigned. I didn’t quit the Star Tribune; I quit my boss and some foolish decisions from the top of the company. When I left, the CEO said my leadership had changed the company forever. Go figure.

I went on to work on my own for 13 years as a consultant. I felt most called to educate leaders about how to lead organizational transformation but I took any jobs that involved people. I met many fools in my work around the country. I met leaders who sabotaged their own managers, who abused employees to preserve their own sick selves, and many who had no concept of what leadership is.

Bad leadership left a vacuum that the disengaged workers of the organizations were happy to fill. The least involved sabotaged company strategies and were often enabled by the silence of good people who felt intimidated.

Those good people were not fools but lacked the courage to stand up to the fools they had as managers, coworkers and union leaders.

Harry Bosch doesn’t allow fools to deter him from his mission to solve murders for those murdered. He thinks for himself. The case drives his actions—not the fools around him who care only about politics, position and posturing.

Aristotle teaches us that being a good person is not mainly about learning moral rules and following them. It is about performing social roles well: being a good parent or teacher or lawyer or friend (New York Times Columnist David Brooks in Why Elders Smile).

Good employee’s value excellence and strive for it regardless of the fools around them and good people stand up to the fools in their lives who try to tear them down.

4 thoughts on “Don’t Let the Fools Drag You Down

  1. Why are fools so visible to their subordinates in an organization yet invisible to those above them? When we expose the fool we not only get them angry we also get those above them angry for not getting after the fool.

  2. My daughter worked for a true fool at a hospital a number of years ago. She had to do work using a computer program that did not do what it was supposed to do when sold to the fool, her boss, for a considerable sum of money. After she continually pointed out the program’s inadequacies to the higher management when they complained about the reports the program generated, she was harassed at every turn by the fool. She also reported the fool to the Human Resources department after the fool made a blatant racist comment during a staff meeting. Eventually she was fired by the fool because no one in management would oust this fool from his “good ole boy” position. The fool remained in his position for a number of years until his retirement. Sometimes standing up to fools costs one their livelihood. It’s hard to do the “standing up” in real life, compared to those who do it in novels. I know in the big scheme of things it’s the right thing to do, but it was very difficult outcome for a young person on their first “real” job after college.

    • Kathy, I agree. The consequences of ‘standing up’ can be truly devastating and often compounds the injury of the abuse. This is true for anyone at almost anytime in a person’s career – unless the person has choices that makes the risk ‘doable.’ I know it can be argued that if people don’t ‘stand up’ to the actions of the fool, little will change. What has to be remembered, at least in my opinion, is that abuse doesn’t happen by ‘one’ person. It is truly systemic. The ‘system’ allows it to happen. Few can stand up to the system and have an outcome that is worth the price. At the same time, though, there is much to be said for knowing one has done everything they could to try to right a wrong. Not doing that is a price that is paid as well. I hope your daughter has experienced a much healthier workplace since her job in that hospital.

      • Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. My daughter went on to obtain her Master’s & just began work at much larger, unhealthier agency – the State of South Carolina. My suggestion to her (after retiring myself from the State after 30 years) was to remember her primary responsibility is to her mental health clients and then to “play the game” with as little involvement as possible.

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