Observations About the 2022 Mid-Term Elections
As a person who majored in political science and has been engaged actively in public
President Obama’s recent quote that “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help” justifiably is getting a great deal of publicity and commentary. The statement is true, but incomplete in its understanding of what it takes to succeed. It is being used by many people to justify redistributing income and wealth from successful people who are simply more “fortunate” in having better support systems to those whom these individuals consider to have been “less fortunate.”
When I think of his remark, I remember the scene at the end of Superman II, in which Lex Luther, the master criminal played by Gene Hackman, attempts to curry favor with the evil General Zod, played by Terence Stamp, by directing him to put Superman in an enclosed chamber in which Superman will lose all his powers. Superman tricks Luther and Zod and ends up retaining his powers, whereas Zod and the two evil creatures with him lose theirs. After this happens, Luther approaches Superman and says: “Wasn’t it great how we fooled them? I was with you all the time, Superman.”
External resources can support, hinder, or be neutral in someone’s quest to achieve a goal. In most cases involving transformational change, the individual has to work smartly and hard to steer those resources toward helping him or her, rather than being hindrances. Essentially, there are five flaws with the implications of the President’s statement:
As a result, many individual leaders, while they draw upon organizational resources to succeed, draw upon those resources differently from their predecessors to turn around failing organizations. My friend Ann Mulcahy inherited a Xerox organization that was near insolvency when she became CEO, but she applied unique leadership skills to turn that organization around. Lou Gerstner took an IBM that was in dire straits and turned it around.
Both would acknowledge that they had a lot of help from hard working people in their organizations, but both were the only people who could have done what they did. The hard working people in their respective organizations could not have succeeded without leadership that channeled their hard work in the right direction. Mulcahy and Gerstner deserved outsized rewards.
Steve Jobs had a lot of help along the way, as Walter Isaacson compellingly documents in his biography of the late great leader, but Jobs made a number of decisions that went against conventional wisdom at the time he made them, and he succeeded because of his unique talents. Every entrepreneurial success, in some way, reflects an individual who looked at the same set of conditions as many other people and saw opportunities when others did not, and, in many instances, that individual had to overcome resistance to change from those same “hard working people.” Great individuals make a difference and should be rewarded.
Government is not a good judge of how to make this redistribution work. It indiscriminately punishes both successful people who innovate and transform, and those who are successful through more luck. In doing this redistribution, government also creates a new class of people who suck up the wealth and income of society and divert that wealth and income to intermediaries who add little value.
Public sector labor unions that negotiate reward and compensation systems based solely on seniority and civil service rules and processes introduce another inflexible dimension to government decision making: they excessively reward conformity to standard, collectively bargained or administratively determined rules and processes, as opposed to rules that deliver the value which should come from a particular public service job. There are more flexible collective bargaining agreements in many industries and countries, especially to recognize the need for adaptability to work-life issues and diversity goals for organizations.
It is easy to blame labor unions or civil services professionals for conformity, but this same process of suppressing individual initiative exists in the management ranks of many large organizations. In my Dossia business, I solicit many large self-insured employers for business. I get frustrated, sometimes to the point of being depressed, when I experience well-educated, intelligent executives applying their education and intelligence to figuring out creative ways to delay decisions. They work hard throwing up roadblocks, and focus their God-given talents on trying to survive from quarter to quarter by avoiding any decision that smacks of even the smallest element of risk. I admire the individuals in these large companies who champion initiatives that overcome the relentless pressure for conformity they encounter from their colleagues.
In closing, I would summarize my reaction to President Obama’s statement as follows: collective action may be necessary for every successful outcome, but, in the most important ways, individuals mobilize those collective resources in the right direction. Absent individual leadership, collective resources can just as easily block necessary actions or, worse yet, be directed the wrong way.