Thursday, January 01, 2004


I have been doing some course-related reading in the field of leadership and management, and I have found the readings troubling. Can people sustain our current system while remaining human?

One of the readings pointed out that the constant need in our capitalistic system is to produce more with less. Indeed, most of the literature of management is focused on that very point. Teams are not important because people like working in teams, or because they create social outlets that we, as human organisms, require for mental health. They are important solely because they are a way that employers can gain more productivity from their workers. If the next study to get published in the Harvard Business Review demonstrates that employees are more able to concentrate on their tasks by locking them in solitary confinement, we may count on dungeons replacing cubicles in many American companies.

I do not pretend to be a social historian, but my understanding is that two short centuries ago, the Industrial Revolution was just beginning to spread through the world. Agricultural communities produced pretty much the same amounts of the same things year after year. Towns had their silversmiths and their markets, but competition does not play a major role in the literature of the day. The constant push to expand, and to produce higher profits for shareholders, and to constantly compete, does not seem to have been as omnipresent in an agrarian society as it is in today’s society.

In voicing my concerns, I am not overlooking that unimaginable wealth and comfort we have today that our predecessors did not have. We have abolished slavery in most of the world, infant mortality is down in most of the world, and I will not give up my microwave oven without a fight. I am not saying that I would rather be a peasant in 17th century Ireland than a development officer in 2003 Kansas City.

But what are the costs in terms of humanity? I spent 12 years practicing law before leaving the field. Law is a wonderful profession. You get to help people. You wear nice clothes, and there isn’t much heavy lifting. Your colleagues are intelligent, well-spoken people. People at cocktail parties might tell you a lawyer joke or two, but you know they respect your intelligence. The pay for most lawyers ranges from generous to lavish.

Why would I turn my back on such a success of modern capitalism?

Because the grind of ever-increasing demands on my time, coupled with the increasing hostility of opposing counsel, was affecting my human spirit. As my wife told me over an anniversary dinner, “You’re not as much fun as you used to be.” The pressure to outperform the lawyer across town, or even in my own firm, consistently ratcheted up, but showed no signs of ratcheting down. Suicide and depression in the legal field are common enough that the Missouri Bar now has a professional counselor on staff. He carries an emergency pager.

Older attorneys talked about how, when they were my age, they went to the movies in the afternoons a couple times a week. Golf courses were for recreation, not business development. People got home at 5, and had time to mow their own yards. Vacations were an annual event, not a questionable first step toward career suicide.

I fear that my experience in the legal field is a canary in a coal mine. How long can a system sustain a constant demand for doing more with less?

I know I sound like a naïve Trotskyite in questioning the capitalist system, and I certainly do not have any solutions to propose. But the most troubling aspect is that nobody else seems to be raising these questions. The Industrial Revolution, and its attendant brand of constantly-increasing competition, is a relatively new phenomenon in the course of human history, and its effects on the human spirit need to be thought of, and, where possible, measured. A leading textbook on organizational behavior bears the words “past present and future” on the back cover, but none of the articles it reprints talks about sustainability, or how it is possible to continue forever doing more with less, without damaging the humans who are part of the system.

I will seek a deeper understanding of the impact of competition on the human spirit, and seek out literature addressing the issue. I intend to voice my concerns where appropriate, and examine proposals to ameliorate or avoid some of the negative effects of our current system.


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