In the fall of 1997 we were working on final negotiations with a Fortune 1000 firm. This was an extremely large opportunity and the relationship was absolutely critical to our success. As a condition of closing we had to brief their president and I was extremely nervous. Did we have all our ducks in a row? Was there some consideration we hadn’t controlled for? Would he balk at the final pricing? As a young professional my mind was reeling with doubt and uncertainty.
As you’ll see, my concerns was completely unfounded.
When I entered the conference room I was met by a disheveled middle-aged man who was bowled over in laughter. I smiled (to fit in) and he just kept waving me away as he stomped the ground repeatedly, wracked by the pleasure of (I found out later) his own joke. His team smirked apologetically and we eventually got him settled down, although the occasional burst of popcorn laughter would slip out unexpectedly.
Yes, this was their glorious leader.
He didn’t really listen to anything we said. Once he picked up the phone in the conference room and couldn’t remember how to dial out, punching numbers whac-a-mole style with a furrowed brow, spitting, “Why – can’t – I – get – this – damn – thing – to – work!“. When it came to the pricing, I accidentally presented the wrong numbers and he didn’t even notice. “Fine, fine…whatever“, was his somewhat annoyed response as he rolled his chair around the room like a two-year-old. And he was a one man band – belching, clearing his throat, clicking his pen, tapping on the table. It was painful. So yes, we secured the deal, but this was the moment I realized that smart people don’t always win.
A Systemic Problem
As employees, most worker bees tend to assume that those in charge either have better information or a superior intellect when it comes to decision making. Therefore, when edicts come down from on high you can accept that someone, somewhere, somehow made the correct choice. But if you work long enough (and you will), there will come a point in your career when you are exposed to the illogical, irrational, emotional and even unforgivable actions of an idiotic executive or board member. At this pinnacle moment of awakening one truth with rise over all others …
… sometimes morons win.
When I was a kid I was introduced to the term, “smart enough to be dangerous”. To me, this is one of the ways stupid people can get ahead. Most of the morons I worked for were political animals who knew how to capitalize on the fear and weaknesses of others. They were bus drivers who would back over anyone who got in their way and conniving enough to hide the bodies.
Another term that’s bandied about is “Failing Upwards”, such as ABCNews.com’s piece from 2007 lambasting CEOs who channeled their inner Chris Angel to levitate to the top of the pyramid. In the article, Ken Siegel of The Impact Group offered his assessment:
“The higher you go up, the less rigorous the situation becomes,” Siegel said. “Familiarity breeds some tolerance of incompetence. We typically have more excuses for those internally, and that contributes to reasons why they should be promoted.”
In his post, Why Stupid People Succeed, author Avish Parashar chalks this phenomenon up to “confidence unbounded by logic“:
“With an inability (or unwillingness) to be open-minded, see the angles, and realize that others may not think the way they do, the stupid person allows their confidence to bloom unfettered by the chains of reason. All of us smart people could learn a thing or two from the stupid.“
Despite their roots in logic, most of these responses may be as unsatisfying to you as they are to me. I want to believe that business smarts and hard work pay dividends, but perhaps Parashar sums up the situation best:
“Sadly, our world is not a meritocracy. The best do not always succeed the most. This is a tough pill to swallow, because it seems so unfair. Especially to us smart folk who were taught growing up that all we had to do was do well in school and we would be fine.”
Why do you think morons win? Share your stories/thoughts below before they take over the world. Then again, it may be too late…