Who’s Really In Charge

I started reading Herman Melville‘s Moby Dick last week. In one of the opening chapters the main character Ishmael talks about why he chooses going to sea as sailor rather than as captain. Sailors are the first to breathe the fresh ocean air at the front of the ship, says Ishmael, while the mates and the captain at the ship’s aft, “get their atmosphere second hand from the sailors at the forecastle.” Ishmael goes on to say, “In much the same way do the commonality lead their leaders in many other things, at the same time that the leaders little suspect it.” Ishmael knows who’s really in charge on the ship.

This is so true in my organization. The employees at the front of the ship, the customer facing employees, are the most important people in our organization. All of the money passes through these employees hands, and managers get most of their information second hand from customer facing associates. In fact, my boss measures me on the results of my group of front line employees. So who’s really in charge?

Management authority is an illusion. Most organizations today are set up in a hierarchical structure with an autocrat at the top of the pyramid. It’s easy for this structure to trick managers into believing they are in a position of power. The traditional org structure is strange to me considering we readily embrace democracy in our public government, but blindly accept tyranny in the workplace. The truth is, no matter what the org structure, the people at the base of our work pyramids have all of the power and all of the control, and leaders rarely suspect it.

I remember when I was first starting out, managing a food and beverage department for the Marriott straight out of college. I thought I was in charge. I had a do-this-do-that mentality, I was the boss. I remember raising my voice and once telling an employee I thought he was lazy. I quickly found my numbers in the tank, and I even had to sit down with my manager and HR to talk about my ‘lazy’ comment. I didn’t get it yet.

Today I understand I have to work for my team. I have to help them achieve their goals, and make sure they are happy. I have to align their goals with those of the organization, and create a desirable vision for the future. I can’t fake this. If my secret desire is for control or power, my team will figure out eventually and strike back.

A cynic might find this too utopian or say even modern managers still have to flex their muscles periodically to show everyone who is in charge. I say these autocrats will eventually face mutiny. Resentful customer facing employees could destroy a manager through poor results, or by reporting the manager to someone higher up the ladder, or by quitting, forcing the manager to use resources on turnover. If you want to be a captain, Melville’s Ishmael will tell you that a superiority mindset is not a practical way to lead. Leaders must develop an inferiority complex. It’s the only way to steer the ship.