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The Corporate Climber Has to Find His Heart

by Michael Maccoby

Fortune (December 1976): 98-110.

A new type of man is taking over the leadership of the most technically advanced large companies in America. In contrast to the jungle-fighter industrialists commonly associated with the turn of the century, the new leader is driven not to build or preside over empires, but to organize winning teams. Unlike the security-seeking organization man who became the stereotype of the Fifties, he is excited by the chance to cut deals and to gamble.

The new industrial leader is not as hardhearted as the autocratic empire builder, nor is he as dependent on the company as the organization man. But he is more detached and emotionally inaccessible than either. And he is troubled by that fact: he recognizes that his work develops his head but not his heart.

As a practicing psychoanalyst, I reached these conclusions on the basis of interviews with 250 managers, ranging from chief executives down to lower-level professional employees in twelve well-known corporations. The study was sponsored by the Harvard Seminar on Science, Technology, and Public Policy and supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. With the help of Douglas Carmichael, Rolando Weissmann, Dennis M. Greene, Cynthia Elliott, and Katherine A. Terzi, I conducted interviews over six years.

In some cases we returned to particular managers several times to talk about how their work was influencing the development of their characters. All together, we spent at least three hours with most, as long as twenty hours with some. In a few cases we also interviewed their wives and children, and seventy-five executives took Rorschach tests.

In contrast to psychoanalysts who study the emotionally disturbed, we concentrated on healthy people in healthy companies. Most of the companies have sales exceeding $1 billion a year and all are highly technological, creators of some of the most advanced products of our age. They practice, and some invented, managerial techniques and business strategies that others admire and copy. Their top managers tend to speak out on major public issues, and a few have held high government positions. No one has accused these companies of trying to overthrow governments, bribe officials, or beg Washington to bail them out of their mistakes.

Creatures in a Corporate Culture

I wanted to find out what motivates the managers of these corporations--what mix of ambition, greed, scientific interest, security seeking, or idealism. How are managers molded by their work? What is the quality of their lives? What type of person reaches the top (and which falls by the wayside)?

Once we studied the interview and Rorschach tests, it became clear that the corporation is populated by four basically different character types. These are "ideal" types in the sense that few people fit any one of them exactly. Most executives are mixtures of two or more, but in practically every case, we were able to agree on which type best described a person. And the individual and his colleagues almost always agreed with our assessment.

The types:

The Craftsman, as the name implies, holds traditional values, including the work ethic, respect for people, concern for quality and thrift. When he talks about his work, he shows an interest in the process of making something; he enjoys building. He sees others, co-workers as well as superiors, in terms of whether they help or hinder him in doing a craftsmanlike job.

Many of the managers in the great corporate laboratories, such as Du Pont and Bell Labs, are craftsmen by character. Their virtues are admired by almost everyone. Yet they are so absorbed in perfecting their own creations--they are unable to lead complex and changing organizations.

The Jungle Fighter lusts for power. He experiences life and work as a jungle where it is eat or be eaten, and the winners destroy the losers. A major part of his psychic resources are budgeted for his internal department of defense. Jungle fighters tend to see their peers as either accomplices or enemies, and their subordinates as objects to be used.

There are two types of jungle fighters, lions and foxes. The lions are the conquerors who, when successful, may build an empire. In large industry, the day of the lions--the Carnegies and Fords--seems virtually ended. The foxes make their nests in the corporate hierarchy and move ahead by stealth and politicking. The most gifted foxes we encountered rose rapidly, by making use of their entrepreneurial skills. But in each case they were eventually destroyed by those they had used or betrayed.

The Company Man bases his sense of identity on being part of the protective organization. At his weakest, he is fearful and submissive, seeking security even more than success. At his strongest, he is concerned with the human side of the company, interested in the feelings of the people around him, and committed to maintaining corporate integrity. The most creative company men sustain an atmosphere of cooperation and stimulation, but they tend to lack the daring to lead highly competitive and innovative organizations.

The Gamesman sees business life in general, and his career in particular, in terms of options and possibilities, as if he were playing a game. He likes to take calculated risks and is fascinated by techniques and new methods. The contest hypes him up and he communicates his enthusiasm, energizing his peers and subordinates like the quarterback on a football team. Unlike the jungle fighter, the gamesman competes not to build an empire or to pile up riches, but to gain fame, glory, the exhilaration of victory. His main goal is to be known as a winner, his deepest fear to be labeled a loser.

Molded by the Psychostructure

The higher our interviews took us in the corporation, the more frequently we encountered the gamesman--he is the new corporate leader. Again, it must be emphasized that the top-level executive is not a pure type, but rather a mixture. He most often combines many of the traits of the gamesman with some attributes of the company man. He is a team player who identifies closely with the corporation.

The gamesman reaches the top in a process of social (in contrast to natural) selection. The companies that excel tend to be run by people who are well adapted to fulfill the requirements of the market and the technology, and who create an atmosphere that encourages the productive work. These executives in turn stimulate traits in their subordinates that are useful to the work, while discouraging those that are unnecessary or impede it. As an executive moves to the top, therefore, his character is refined.

Any organization of work--industrial services, blue or white collar--can be described as a "psychostructure" that selects and molds character. One difference between the psychostructure of the modern corporate hierarchy and that of the factory is the fineness of fit required between work and character. Managers must have characters closely attuned to the "brain work" they perform. Only a minimal fit is required to perform simplified, repetitive tasks in a factory.

The gamesman’s character, which might seem a collection of near paradoxes, can best be understood in terms of its adaptation to the requirements of the organization. The gamesman is cooperative but competitive, detached and playful but compulsively driven to succeed, a team player but a would-be superstar, a team leader but often a rebel against bureaucratic hierarchy, fair and unprejudiced but contemptuous of weakness, tough and dominating but not destructive. Competition and innovation in modern business require these gamelike attitudes, and of all the character types, only the gamesman is emotionally attuned to the environment.

As the manager adapts to the requirements of the corporation, something else happens to his character. The work stimulates and reinforces attitudes essential for intellectual innovation and teamwork--what I call qualities of the head. But it does not stimulate the qualities of the heart.

The True Seat of Courage

Most people conceive of the heart as being the opposite of the head: they think it means softness, while the head means tough-minded, realistic thought. But this view is of relatively recent conception having emerged during the last couple of centuries, and it does not adequately describe the way I use the terms. I think of the head and the heart in the older Judeo-Chrisitan and Islamic traditions which consider the heart to be not only the home of compassion, generosity, and idealism, but also the true seat of consciousness and courage.

As the instrument of calculation, the brain can decipher codes, solve technical problems, and keep accounts. But person must have a strong heart to resolve deep emotional doubts or to summon up the courage needed to act out a moral conviction. Only a well-developed heart can invest information with spiritual weight. It takes a well-developed heart to make difficult judgements in terms of the human values involved.

The managers we interviewed recognized that their work developed the heads but not their hearts. In answering questionnaires, they consistently identified intellectual qualities as more "important for your work" than emotional qualities. They also indicated that the jobs " stimulated or reinforced " qualities of the head more than those of the heart.

Chart of qualities not included here at this time

They Never Fire Anybody

Many executives believe that developing such qualities as compassion and empathy would bring them into conflict with corporate goals. One was flabbergasted by the very idea of sensing his subordinates’ feelings, of developing a heart that listens. "If I let myself feel their problems," he said, " I’d never get anything done. It would be impossible to deal with the people."

Other managers have told me that if they were not emotionally detached they could not make decisions to build new factories or change technology in ways that would put people out of work. In the long run, they claim, these decisions will be socially beneficial, but to carry them out they will have to avoid dwelling on the immediate suffering caused.

Those arguments are made by executives who are weak-hearted indeed, some would say flabby-hearted. They cannot bear to look at suffering, for to do so is to become paralyzed. They must detach themselves emotionally, and put the adverse consequences out of their minds. Most executives we interviewed had never personally fired anyone. Weak-hearted, they virtually blanched at the prospect.

A strong-hearted person weighs the suffering involved in a decision, has empathy for those who will be hurt by it but he does not shrink from the decisions if he is convinced that it is right. The difference is that his decision bears greater weight, having been made with compassion, and a searching look at all the facts. If the strong-hearted executive can find ways of alleviating the suffering, he will. That is true leadership.

It Can Start at Age Five

The executive’s emotional detachment stems largely from careerism. Obsessed with winning, the gamesman views all of his actions in terms of whether they will help him succeed in his career. But careerism does not begin in the corporation--it can begin at age five. Parents start the ball rolling by evaluating their child’s behavior in terms of its market value. Is he smart enough? Is her personality right? Can he sell himself? The parents, themselves careerists, threaten the child not with punishment, but with failure in the career market of school and workplace.

Overly concerned with protecting his career, the gamesman constantly betrays himself, since he must ignore idealistic, compassionate, and courageous impulses that might jeopardize his future. As a result, he never fully develops a strong, independent sense of self, and he eventually loses touch with his deepest strivings. It is symptomatic of an undeveloped heart that many managers told us they give in too easily to others and don’t know what they want. (chart currently not included) To stand up to others requires courage, and to know what you want implies the sense of volition that comes from a strong heart.

Erich Fromm, the psychoanalyst and social philosopher, has described careerism in terms of the "marketing orientation" pointing out that the individual’s sense of identity, integrity, and self-determination is lost as he treats himself as an object whose worth is determined by its fluctuating market value. As he sells himself, the marketing individual experiences, or more likely represses, a deep sense of shame, self-contempt, and guilt. The fact that half the managers we interviewed said they blame themselves too much may reflect the authoritarian consciences of some, but many feel guilty because they have sacrificed self-respect. Their self-blame is not an irrational feeling, but grows out of a nagging sense of self-betrayal: they have chosen career over the higher needs of self, family, and society.

Careerism demands detachment. To succeed in school, the child needs to detach himself from a crippling fear of failure. To sell himself, he detaches himself from feelings of shame and humiliation. To compete and win, he detaches himself from compassion for the losers. To devote himself to success at work, he detaches himself from family.

"There is a Shell Around My Heart

As a result, high-ranking corporate managers exercise and develop many positive intellectual characteristics, while their emotional qualities tend to atrophy. They lack passion and compassion. They are cool or lukewarm. They are emotionally cautious and protected against intense experience. The process of bending one’s will to corporate goals and moving up the hierarchy leads to meanness and emotional stinginess.

Without a developed heart, an executive lacks some of the qualities that would be most helpful in managing creative people and complex tasks. A hard-hearted jungle fighter, even if he is brilliant, cannot hold onto creative people because he lacks the sensitivity to work with them. As the opposite extreme, a creative person with a weak or underdeveloped heart does not possess the inner strength to make tough decisions.

I encountered an executive who, out of softheartedness, left a subordinate in a job the man wanted but did not have the ability to perform. As things turned out, the job was botched, and the subordinate was given a negative evaluation. This could have been avoided if the executive had either summoned up the courage to reassign the man earlier or, better yet, had been interested in helping him develop his talents.

Only a person with a strong heart will fight for the welfare of an organization when doing so might endanger his career. For example, I ran across a gamesman who had been assigned to a project he sensed was bound to fail. Thinking only of his career, he would not risk alienating his boss by urging that the whole idea be abandoned. Rather, he got himself transferred to avoid being personally tarnished.

The gamesman cannot be a careerist at work and loving, full-hearted person in his private life. Like King Midas, who could not touch his own daughter without turning her into gold, the manager can no longer choose when to be intimately related and when to be detached. One president told me that despite his attempts to be a good father, his children resented him bitterly. " I don’t blame them," he said. "Even though I appear frank and open, they know there is a shell around my heart, that they can’t really touch me."

If his wife does not share his careerist drive, the gamesman finds he cannot respond to her on an emotional level--and so he "runs away" from her, becoming a workaholic. But most gamesman who make it to the top have wives who are very much like themselves. These women typically spend a lot of their time on committees, performing civic duties that enhance their image and that of the corporation. In bringing up children, they encourage those traits that will best prepare them to be winners like the parents. One gamesman’s wife told me that her "number one goal is to have a happy home so my husband and children have a springboard for success."

Most managers described a good friend as a person who would support them in their careers. Their definition ran as follows: "Someone I can depend on when the going gets rough." " I can count on him for support." " I can confide in him. He will help me no matter what." Fewer than 10 percent identified a friend as a person who shared their spiritual goals or, as an exceptional manager put it, "a person who would be open enough to tell me what I need to do for growing and progressing in life."

Although the executives wanted help from their friends, not even one in ten said that helping others was one of his goals in life. In contrast, more than half the workers we studies in a Tennessee factory mentioned helping others as one of their aims. When asked her goals in life, a black women working in a paint shop answered: "Sure, I want a house and financial security, but I can’ even walk down the street with money in my pocket and not heed the cries of those who are in need. If I did that, I’d be nothing."

In their deepest recesses, a good many managers seem to be wondering whether they really amount to much of anything. A highly successful executive, in charge of product development in a large company at the age of forty, already feels himself a failure. " I am considering whether all this is worth it," he said. " I started thinking about this four or five years ago. I feel a lack of joy. I don’t see where all this is leading to."

I asked him whether he felt his life lacked meaning. "Yes," he replied, "It is running full tilt without direction. This environment is continually in a crisis mode. It’s all high speed. You can’t talk about trivia. It turns me off when my wife wants to chatter. It’s stupid when you think about it; what else can you do but listen?"

Some successful executives who are not consciously critical of corporate life reveal a contradictory reaction in their dreams. A gameswoman who has risen close to the top of a large multinational company told us that her job was an interesting challenge, one that gave her the opportunity for a great deal of independence and self-development. " I really enjoy my work," she said. " I moan and groan, but I’ve had some fantastic opportunities and challenges."

A Telephone in Her Casket

What are the challenges she enjoyed so much? The major one turned out to be the competition with other executives for top positions in the corporation. What she claimed to value--challenge and independence--appeared really to be anxious struggle and lonely careerism. As she said, "The main thing is the ability to survive in this environment."

Despite her conscious enthusiasm, this woman’s recurring dream seems to express a very different unconscious experience. She dreams that she is buried alive and all she wants is a telephone in her casket. It sounds like a joke, but such a dream is all too serious: it symbolizes the experience of emotional deadness in the corporate womb, and her acceptance of her fate (as long as she can stay in the executive competition). Rather than rebelling at being buried alive and fighting to become free, she only asks for a telephone to communicate with others, presumably in their own casket-offices.

A gifted scientist-executive who had begun to feel disillusioned with his work dreamed that he entered a large hotel on a beach (perhaps looking for an easy protected life). The lower story is missing (everything is up in the head). There is a ladder inside and he climbed up (successful career). The place was mushy with bat droppings and spiders (crazy intrigues at the top). He finished the dream with a vision of horror: " I look at the window, but the beach is no longer there. There is a stockyard. I feel death around me. I fly out of the building through the air. It is a great feeling to get out."

One of the most compassionate and idealistic managers we interviewed experienced an internal conflict with his own gamesmanlike wish to win. "I need love and need to give it," he said, " but I tend to cover it up in my work." This man worked in a company where the spirit is friendlier than in most. After visiting another corporation where the atmosphere was one of cutthroat competition, he had a dream. " I went into a city of buildings, " he recalled. " They were gleaming and slimy, all hotels. It was really a cemetery. Everybody in the rooms was dead and embalmed. Yet they were sitting, posed as if alive. It was in the Southwest, where I gone on business. A brilliant blue day and sunshine outside. The corpses were looking out of the windows."

Like the woman executive, the unconscious symbol he chose for corporate life was death, meaning the killing of one’s own feelings, the molding of the self into a waxen pose within ultramodern glass coffins. When our research group discussed the man’s dream and interview, the conflict seemed so great that I felt he was headed for illness. In fact, he developed an ulcer soon afterward and took a leave of absence.

"I Don't Fear Death Now, But..."

An old and tiring gamesman is a pathetic figure, especially after he has lost a few contests and, with them his confidence. Once his youth, vigor, and even the thrill in winning is lost, he becomes depressed and goal-less, questioning the purpose of his life.

No longer energized by the team struggle and unable to dedicate himself, he feels starkly alone. His attitude had kept him from deep friendship and intimacy. He is not like the aging craftsman, whose goal in life had not been winning but making something better. The craftsman can retire from the corporation and still be energetic and interested in new ideas. The gamesman had not sufficiently developed the self to appreciate science or art for their own sakes. Without the thrill of the contest, there is nothing.

A gamesman who has once been on the way to the top said, " I never wanted security-- I felt we were all good racehorses and we’d be allowed to run. I wanted to be part of the winning team. The corporation had begun to take off. It was wide open." Now, two of his projects have failed in succession, and he has been given a staff position with vague responsibilities. His superiors worry about what to do with him. He has become an alcoholic. His conversation was depressed. "I don’t fear death now," he said, " but I fear discomfort. Hard knocks grind your ego down. There is a lot of pain there too."

Professors Aren't Any Better

As I have pointed out, strong-hearted executives make better managers than weak-hearted ones. Yet the strong-hearted are not socially selected by the corporation. I have encountered a few, but there are exceptions. Our meritocratic society measures performance from childhood almost solely by ability in intellectual problem solving--but we have not measures for a strong heart. And those who sparkle in business school may or may not possess courage and compassion.

When I reported our findings to top managers at one company we studied, the executives were touched and worried. Many managers consider themselves religious people or humanists. The contradiction between the effects of corporate life and their values troubled them. Typically, they looked for a managerial solution. How could they change their work or institute new programs to develop the heart? The question took me by surprise, but since then it has made me think about how the heart might be developed within the corporate system. I have not yet found an answer.

Where Will the Leaders Come From?

The emotional and spiritual underdevelopment of corporate executives is a problem not only for the individual careerist, but also for society as a whole. Acting through the market, managers serve society’s material needs out of their own greedy self-interest. It they meet those needs successfully, they will in turn be rewarded. The system has given us what we asked from it: unprecedented wealth and material comfort.

In the process, executives must use their heads--to analyze demand, to design products, to fashion effective advertising and so on. And at this, they are extremely adept. The trouble is that, in rising to the top, they sacrifice the capacity to develop values that go beyond winning the game. And the larger society, of which business is but a subsystem, depends for its greatness not only on the head but on the heart--the qualities of courage, compassion, generosity, idealism. If the most dynamic sector of society continues to select out these qualities, where will we find future leaders who possess the moral strength to know right from wrong and the courage to act on those convictions?

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This page was last updated Thursday, 04-Nov-1999 17:35:33 EST.