From the book, Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz:
That is the great question about bureaucracies. Why are the best people so often mired in the middle, while nonentities become the leaders? Because what gets you up the ladder isn’t excellence: it is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Being smooth at cocktail parties, playing office politics, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Getting along by going along. Not sticking your neck out for the sake of your principles—not having any principles. Neither believing in the system nor thinking to question it. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that you have nothing inside you at all.
This description of life within a bureaucracy describes the dark side of life in organizations about as well as any I’ve seen. Most people accept the primary rules of organizations. They conform and comply and go along to get along. As a result, they fall far short of being the person and the employee they might be. They settle for institutionalized mediocrity rather than risk rejection in the pursuit of excellence.
A few people fight against the rules. Determined to live their values, they strive for excellence and tell the truth to power. It’s hard to be excellent when everyone around you is mediocre. It is hard to be authentic when everyone around you isn’t. It’s hard to be value-driven when everyone around you leaves their principles at the door. But such heroic modeling of what people could be in an organization can be achieved—at least for a time. And at the risk of being attacked, demonized, scapegoated, marginalized and all the other nasty things people do to others to make everyone be the same.
But why would we want to fight such unnecessary battles—not winnable in the end–if we understood life in organizations before we got too invested in an organization or profession? Why not teach our kids to work outside of organizations? And if they have to work in an organization, teach them the values and skills to be able to withstand the pressures to sell out on themselves. And teach them to always have an exit card: a place to go if things don’t work out.
It is, I think, better to abandon anti-human systems than to try to change them.