By: John Esposito
This is a post about in-betweens: leadership ‘upwards’ and ‘downwards’; the middle-management rung of the organizational hierarchy; being intelligent and mortal at the same time.
The ‘eureka’ described in this post concerns ancient gods, but it derives from my non-academic work experience. So this post doesn’t draw a modern leadership lesson from an ancient myth. Rather, I’m trying to understand something about ancient myth by comparing its life-world with that signified by a modern leadership role.
Once upon a time I ran a small team of writers and researchers. We published technical how-to articles and news pieces, conducted and analyzed detailed surveys on software engineering practices, and sold research and advertising to companies that provided tools and services for professional software development. My job was to provide editorial direction, design the research program, and manage day-to-day staff outputs.
As a graduate student I had taught or TAed for undergraduate classes in three academic departments, and I figured that leading a team of knowledge workers would be pretty similar to running an undergraduate classroom.
I was wrong, of course.
But the walls I banged my head against as a middle manager helped me grasp first-hand something that my academic work often touched on but never seemed to click: I started to feel how ancient Greeks apparently felt about the Olympian gods.
Brief background: the gods in Greek literature are notoriously capricious. This varies considerably from text to text, of course, and the justice or rationality of divine decision-making is already interrogated explicitly in the first book of Homer’s Odyssey (1.22ff). But the gods of the Iliad drunkenly giggle at disability while humans are slaughtered en masse; the gods that open Athenian tragedies threaten humans — and literally kill them and others they care about — for showing them insufficient religious awe; and the pettiness of the gods in Greek poetry is enough for Plato the ontotheologian to consider total censorship of such poets in his “lovely” (kalon) ideal state.
Like Plato, we might think these arbitrary pagan gods silly. Why believe in gods at all unless these gods are..at least transcendent in some way? ..maybe good…but even evil (or both) would do explanatorily fine.
It just seems gratuitous to suppose that the world is run by a bunch of beings that aren’t any smarter than we are.
“Quite so,” nodded my scholarly brain.
“Uhh wait,” squinted my middle-management brain. “That’s EXACTLY how middle management works.”
Let me provide some examples from my non-academic experience.
What are we doing?
First way to see if anyone knows what they’re doing: examine the corporate strategy. What was it? Who decided it? How? Was it any good? How were we checking?
Nobody knew any of these things.
Certainly we sought this knowledge. The company was quite small, and I spent a good bit of time on the leadership team — spreadsheets, slide decks, consultants, retreats. We devised plenty of mission-vision-values iterations, goals over 5/3/1 year terms, team-specific objectives, product objectives, revenue objectives. But however much data we poured in, it was always clear that the top-level direction of the company was fabricated ex nihilo.
Yes, people wanted to pay us for the stuff we produced. Financially, the company was doing quite well. But the knowledge of what people were willing to pay was too proximate. The data told us what others asked of us; the data did not tell us what others didn’t already know they wanted.
The lack of direction resulted in both frustration and more ex nihilo fabrication all the way down. I didn’t really know what we were going for — what the good was beyond our mission-vision-values (which I had also, futilely, helped to generate) — so I semi-consciously made up a vision of how we might ‘help people build better software’, and how this ‘better software’ would improve the world. Okay, fine in my head. But because this was one ex nihilo telos piled on top of the ex nihilo tele communicated from above, the company’s top and middle levels were, as a conjunct, acting toward nothing.
The people that reported to me knew that my ‘purpose’ and the executives’ ‘purpose’ were related only accidentally. When the two tele happened to align, my reports aimed at the goal I had made up. When they didn’t align, my reports usually followed the executive telos. Since they wanted to get paid, it would have been foolish not to.
This accidentality of purpose alignment meant that often I thought that my bosses were doing things that made no sense, out of sheer arbitrary will. But I also knew that my decisions were built toward nonsense goals I had made up no less irrationally than the executives had.
Purpose, in other words, was painfully local — even where the locale was the top of the company.
The nihilistic temptation to deny all purpose (telos) on the grounds that there is no global purpose is technically avoided by this ‘local-only’ realization. But that is a bit of sleight of hand, a kicking-of-the-can-down-the-road. To avoid sleight of hand, we might deploy the concept ‘higher purpose’. But the crude anti-nihilistic temptation to conflate ‘higher’ with ‘highest’ puts the ‘higher purpose’ hand-wave in the same unsatisfying position as the ‘local purpose’ counter.
One way to avoid the ‘higher’ and ‘highest’ conflation, without falling into enervating nihilism — and to be fair I oscillated between these positions as I contemplated the conjunction of my uselessness and responsibility — is to leave the ‘ultimate end’ notion as a metaphor. In ancient Greek, the concept of ‘fate’ is often denoted by the same word (moira) that denotes any division of things — the cosmos into realms, the sacrificed animal into edible (or otherwise destructible) portions, the spoils of war into allocations among the participating warriors. The assignment of Zeus as ‘CEO of Olympus’ is one of these ‘divisions’. Your life, and the whole Minkowski space of cosmic history, is ‘divided’; and ‘destiny’ is not reduced to any other concept.
The notion of ‘fate as division/allocation’ does not satisfy any desire for an ultimate purpose. But it does keep the concept ‘local purpose’ coherent and not completely dishonest, and therefore both rationally and ethically actionable.
Second way to see if anyone knows what they’re doing: figure out who is causally responsible (aitios) for the thing.
Easy answer: ultimately doesn’t the company’s causal pyramid reduce to the owners? or maybe the CEO? In this case the distinction was moot: the CEO was also the owner. So while venting our frustration about lack of direction, we middle managers ultimately reduced all blame to the CEO. No doubt, if the buck stopped anywhere, it stopped with the CEO.
Easy consequent excuse: “Yes, I’m doing lousy work, but that’s really because I’m getting paid to do something that isn’t that great, and I need to get paid.”
But anyone who feels responsible for their own work knows that it is simply a useful ethical fiction that the CEO is the sufficient cause of the company’s direction. The aitiological space of labor is not exhausted by the CEO’s imagination. The company does what it does whether the CEO wills it or not; and anyway the CEO (or the owners, or the board) chases (if also manipulates: ‘demand generation’) the buyers’ desires. You may understandably blame the CEO when nonsense happens; but you know, if you have any pride in your work, that the CEO — or even the owner — is just one cause of many.
This took me a long time to realize in practice. Despite my Bronx upbringing, I suppose, there was still a kind of two-bodied ‘divine right’ Mesopotamian semi-divine pharaonic sun-son tian-ming devaraja picture pulling the brain-levers when I thought of who ran the company. And therefore, when things went wrong, the supra-human CEO was clearly — supra-human, but not good.
Therefore, obviously, a demon. And while none of us ‘in the middle’ explicitly imagined our role in these metaphysical terms, implicitly this is how we positioned ourselves: between the people (our subordinates) who were happily occupied with getting their hands dirty and the gods (the executives) who were absolutely in power and absolutely out of their minds.
As spent more time on the leadership committee and began to notice the silliness of this ‘monistic CEO’ picture, the Olympian image of ridiculous irrational gods begin to fit my middle management experience — as it had earlier failed to fit my cosmology.
The many squabbling gods of Olympus are not the sufficient cause of things. Their cosmic puppeteering makes no sense — as our pretentious corporate strategy made no sense. The people in charge are incompetent; the incompetence goes all the way up; and as a rung in that ladder my attempt to carve out rationality in the world I controlled was as sad as any Romantic youth’s Bildung.
Nihilistic enervation, again — unless the executive-king is not The One.
And as I came to understand better that executives are not that aitiologically sufficient, after all, I think I also began to understand the profoundly non-nihilistic rage and sadness of the Iliad better still.
The king aitios (responsible), the king non-aitios (causally sufficient)
Taken on its own, the opening of the Iliad seems to say that Zeus is in charge of everything: “and the will/plan (boule) of Zeus was fulfilled” (Iliad 1.5). What boule? The subject-matter at hand, of course: the rage of Achilles and the deaths that resulted.
But taken in the context of the epic tradition (most evidence for which is admittedly comparatively late) of which the Homeric poems form a part, the ‘boule of Zeus’ is both more terrible and less attributable to Zeus himself.
In the Kypria, the ‘prequel’ to the Iliad, it turns out that the ‘boule of Zeus’ is the maximal killing of humans, requested by Earth itself, a punishment on humans for stomping too loudly — like the Near Eastern flood story — in English, Latinately euphemised as ‘the depopulation of the earth’.
Zeus is involved not because he personally objects to humanity but rather because, when humans “need” to be killed, the supreme thunder-king’s job is to make it happen.
It is reasonable, then, to rage against Zeus — and by one (far from universally accepted, dreamed by Shelley) scholarly argument the Iliad does carefully imply a story of Zeus’ overthrow under extreme erasure.
But anyone who feels responsible for their own lives — and this claim lives somewhere near Socrates’ ethical ‘second sailing’ from astronomy into ethics, as Plato tells it — knows that this rage isn’t quite aimed correctly.
In part 1 I’ve briefly described how my work in middle management provided a leadership experience that fit with, and perhaps vitiated, the prima facie annoying stupidity of polytheistic Olympus.
But Olympian myth is about everything — not just leadership in particular. And I take leadership as not simply one (say, mereological) sliver of the world, but rather as a focused perspective on all of life.
In part 2 of this series I’ll press harder on the picture of the world implied by the concept of the ‘aitiologically lame king’ — the concept I did not understand until I ‘commanded’ things from ‘in the middle’. The central concept of part 2 will likely be ‘mesocentricity’ — the mythic (and famously Aristotelian) idea that there is something ‘middle’ about the empirical (experience-able) cosmos itself — a concept I thought of in mainly arithmetical terms — the golden mean! the topology of stochasticity! the 80/20 rule! — until I spent a few years in middle management.