This is our life. No dress rehearsal.

The Illusory Seduction of Efficiency

On seeking absolutism to solve the problems of today


Duleepa Wijayawardhana

June 16, 2019

A man walks out of his downtown house and looks down the road and notices the twenty or more potholes. He exclaims that one of them is likely big enough to swallow his small car. He grimaces and he wishes that someone, somewhere in local government would just finally take it upon themselves to “get the job done”.

A woman staring at the once pristine lake on the side of the mountain sighs and covers her face with her hand. The overwhelming blue-algae explosion from unchecked chemical dumping has destroyed her once private refuge and the stillness is not a sign of peace in nature but a wholly complete lack of natural life. Enough is enough, it’s time someone took this problem and fixed it.

If you’ve felt such thoughts then you are not alone. I would argue that many of us wake up, go about our daily life and observe problems that could, in our opinion, be easily solved. Perhaps, like the armchair coach of my favourite football team, I would say: “if only I had the power, this would be solved in a heartbeat.”

This is the seduction of efficiency.

Individually we crave the idea of someone coming along and fixing problems with a wave of their hand. And when someone politically, socially, personally or at work, offers that argument as acceptance of that person it is immensely seductive. For the past decade I’ve heard far too many people mention their craving for people or systems that would just “get things done.” These people are from all parts of the political spectrum and from all walks of life, from doctors to factory workers. Whether it is to fight the climate crisis or to deny such a crisis even exists, the central theme is “with strong purposeful leadership will come success; no more dithering on which way to go.”

Often the same people will proclaim an admiration for companies and how they are hierarchically structured and modelled to move ideas and people to success. They say businesses are so much more efficient, why can’t we get society to function more like a company. Maybe all that government needs is to have a stronger leader and someone who’s been a CEO makes so much sense then doesn’t it?

And such is the illusory seduction of efficiency.

In the 1930s, Mussolini claimed that given absolute power he would get the Italian trains to run on time. Like most such claims, then and now, it was a myth. The reality never really stood the test. I don’t think I need to belabour the point that the illusory seduction of efficiency is merely a shortcut and a craving for some form of rule by strength. In other words, dictatorship. You shudder. You exclaim. You say, that’s not what I wanted, that’s not what I meant; what I want is the efficiency that a CEO of a company can provide to move the needle.

So let’s talk about businesses. After all, voters are happy to consider a successful CEO in many of our democracies. When it comes to efficiency, I have seen CEOs where every email had to go through them, or like the case of Theranos where reportedly the CEO kept a very tight leash on what any part of the organization knew. I have also seen CEOs who deferred every decision to other people taking no responsibility or providing any sense of clarity of purpose or vision. Both paths almost never lead to the efficient running or success of a business. In each case, success would probably come despite the leadership and any success tempered by quick and decisive failure.

With that last example you might exclaim that that is the illusory seduction of democracy. And I would not disagree with you.

A statement I hear often is that a company is not a democracy after all ultimately all power finally rests in the hands of one person. But this is a fallacy, usually from people who have never run their own business, or created a large organization, or understood what it means to lead people in general. There are of course organizations and companies which run as a flat structure and you can use methodologies like those espoused in the Principles for Decision-Making in a Flat Organization. I would argue, however, that those too are illusions of efficiency. In any group of people when decisions are expressed, there’s some form of negotiation or manipulation whether it is direct or indirect, seen or hidden, conscious or subconscious. In other words we create hierarchies out of nothing and impose hierarchy without thought.

For me, this post is about two things. First: we are all, probably more so than ever in the last fifty years, at the cusp of making decisions about our societies where populist leaders try to wrestle our vote with arguments based on “strong leadership” and “efficiency.” Whether that is right-wing, centrist or leftist, the ideology from whence it comes is secondary to what they actually want: more power, more control and all in the guise of doing good. Be warned and be careful, it is easy to give up your power and decision-making in the name of “good”, but when the tides turn, when the efficiency is a controlled illusory facade, and when that power is misused it is very hard to take it back. You will get neither the fixed potholes nor the cleaned environment.

Second: strong leadership isn’t about speaking with one voice or having absolute authority. It isn’t pandering to the illusion of democracy or the illusion of dictatorship. Strong leadership is so much more nuanced. It’s about patiently getting opinions, it’s about making the hard decisions but never in an absolutist way, it’s about admitting failure, course corrections and more. Remember mobs form majorities, rarely is mob-rule a good thing either. When we ask about CEOs, or anyone, whether they are fit for political leadership, we should be looking at how they helped their organizations make decisions; how did they delegate authority such that values were upheld throughout the hierarchy; how did they treat and negotiate with people so that voices weren’t silenced.

If we want our problems to be actually addressed, whether economic or environmental, maybe we should stop with the illusions of both absolutism and democracy and discuss the realities of our time and our seemingly endless march towards demagogues and tyrannies of majorities something Hamilton would have recognized.

Unfortunately that requires far more work and study from each of us.

Image: The Constitution of the United States. In the context of its era was an answer to the absolutism of Europe.

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