Bryan Caplan  

Why Is There a Glass Ceiling for Straight Shooters?

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Most people would like to be described as "straight shooters." (I think). And many straight shooters are very successful. However, it seems like they also face a glass ceiling. Whether we're talking politics, business, or non-profits, we rarely see straight shooters at the very top of large organizations.

Generalizing from the Larry Summers experience, here's my best guess about what's going on:

At lower levels, straight shooters profit extensively from their solid reputations. Superiors want to give you responsibility, because they know they can count on you, and don't have to worry you'll stab them in the back. The higher you rise, though, the more you have to worry about the feelings of your subordinates and peers, not just the approval of your superiors. Indeed, at the very top, you have no superiors, and your whole job is keeping subordinates and peers happy.

Underlying this story is the assumption that "straight shooting" combines promise-keeping with bluntness. Are successful leaders the few who can unbundle the two?


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COMMENTS (18 to date)
Alex J. writes:

Some random thoughts:

Powerful people can be blunt, because others have to swallow their pride when dealing with them.

If you're powerful, you have the potential to gather yes-men. (The sort of people who in other organizations would've been Summers' yes-men instead arranged for him to be fired.) Yes-men are a vice for a powerful person. If he is blunt with them, perhaps they will be blunt with him? (In contrast I am reminded of Nathan Arizona's motto: "Do what I say or watch your butt.")

If you can combine bluntness with hyper-competence, it may work for you. Otherwise, you will just collect enemies whom you have insulted.

Almost everybody has someone to keep happy, even if they surround themselves with toadies. The president has to court public opinion, CEOs have to have customers etc. We might contrast with, say, a county gov't manager, who faces little incentive to perform, can't fire anybody, but has the power to make his subordinates miserable. Completely different standards of "successful leader"-ship.

Likewise, Richard E. Simpkin wrote that the incentives facing a peacetime general were so completely different that those facing a wartime general that it is almost impossible to start a war with competent generals. I think we can agree that wartime generals value straight shooting. Experience in the Clinton years suggests that peacetime officers are not rewarded for straight shooting.

Sorry about the jumble.

mt57 writes:

Multiple false premises underlie this question. First, the statements that led to Summers' exit were not "straight shooting". They were complete speculations. It is questionable judgment for any leader to speculate publicly about issues that his constituencies consider controversial.

Secondly, you assume you have defined the relevant universe as being subordinates and peers. You omit other major constituencies such as the student body and alumni who provide the funding for the institution, some of whom were offended by the idea he mused regardless of its merits and others (e.g., me) who were dumbstruck at the stupidity of publicly offending the first group unnecessarily and the willfulness of putting his desire to muse ahead of sound leadership.

You also omit the significance to a major institution in a competitive environment of managing its brand to maximize its appeal. Linking the brand to controversy unnecessarily was just stupid.

I don't know why you keep beating that dead horse. His was an object lesson in being a bad 21st century CEO.

Chris Collins writes:

I don’t know if blunt is necessarily a good trait of a leader. I do think that it is important to be able to get your appoint across, being blunt has nothing to do with it. I agree with on the idea of a leader has to keep their "subordinates and peers" happy because a happy worker is a productive worker.

Chris Collins writes:

I don’t know if blunt is necessarily a good trait of a leader. I do think that it is important to be able to get your appoint across, being blunt has nothing to do with it. I agree with on the idea of a leader has to keep their "subordinates and peers" happy because a happy worker is a productive worker.

Dr. T writes:
Underlying this story is the assumption that "straight shooting" combines promise-keeping with bluntness. Are successful leaders the few who can unbundle the two?
The answer depends on the definition of successful leaders. If successful leader means everyone who rose to a top position, then straight-shooting mostly is absent. If you are talking about rare, super-successful leaders such as Jack Welch or Steve Jobs, then straight-shooting may be present.

My observations of leadership (in academic and VA medicine) show that it is almost impossible for a straight-shooter to rise above department chair (academia) or service chief (VA). To get a 'leadership' position one must play politics, kiss butt, and put self-promotional spin on every activity. These 'leaders' tolerate straight-shooter subordinates only if they excel at their job or fulfill multiple EEOC criteria (such as partly disabled, black, female veteran). Leaders who resemble the ones I've worked under are morale and productivity degraders who judge themselves by their promotions instead of their accomplishments.

Troy Camplin writes:

I hired a place to help me find gainful employment in a career, and one piece of their advice was to not be clear and direct about why I quit any of my jobs. I can't say I quit over corruption because then I could look like a potential rat. I can't say that I quit because at the university I taught at they allow the inmates to run the asylum, there is no proper hierarchy, no defense against accusations, and no recourse, where I get accused of being unethical because I don't agree that even the dumbest amongst us deserve a university education, or that we should try to reach them at the expense of the best and brightest (when I asked how to reach both, I was told I would "just have to let the best and brightest be bored" -- which is what I consider to be an unethical position), and where I was called a liar because I said I didn't get something I didn't get (I was apparently supposed to tell them I didn't get something I didn't get and therefore couldn't know to tell them -- some people haven't gotten the message that you can't prove a negative). I can't tell a potential employer any of this, apparently, but have to put a positive spin on it.

TGGP writes:

Experience in the Clinton years suggests that peacetime officers are not rewarded for straight shooting.
Elaborate.

Alex J. writes:

To elaborate, an officer could get into serious trouble for criticizing the administration's policies on gays in the military and women in combat, even in eliptical terms.

For another unrelated example of peacetime crud rising to the top you might look up General Lloyd Fredendall.

Curt Doolittle writes:

Management can most easily identify subordinates with actionable information when they are straight shooters. Straight shooters will generally say what is in the company interest, or in management's interest, despite the impact of "straight shooting" on their network of people in their hierarchy. Essentially selling loyalty upward. Note that this is why most people are not straight shooters: they see themselves as part of the local group, rather than as aspirants to the management group.

As these people progress in their careers they must learn that negativity is not "straight shooting". Instead, they must convert this "straight shooting" from the negative and critical, to the optimistic and valuable. They must, instead of identifying faults, identify opportunities, and rally people to their cause in exploiting them. Some people cannot make that transition. For some they confuse negativism as straight shooting, which means that they are just a drag on the organization, or have entertainment value and little else.

Furthermore, people who are "straight shooters" and betray their hierarchy at lower levels, upon promotion, become a disadvantage to those at higher levels, who are now exposed to risk. So as you move upward you must learn how to deliver "straight shooting". This largely means that you must do it in private. This private option is not available to you when you are at the bottom of the organization, because you don't have access to private meetings.

Furthermore, jobs that are lower level are most often individual contributor positions where they must drive to get work done. At higher levels, and most importantly at the senior level, you are instead, coordinating efforts among people toward ends that are difficult to achieve, require many people to cooperate who have many OPTIONS for using their network in cooperation with other networks, and these senior jobs have more to do with managing that cooperation than to producing visible work products. This is exacerbated by higher risk occupations like financial management, capitally intensive entrepreneurship, or managing groups of people with different preferences (such as engineers and artists).

When you move up to managing a company (Mine will hit 100M this coming year) you have multiple constituencies that often misinterpret your meaning. I am known as a good public speaker, and I endeavor to be as straight a shooter as possible, but the number of times I misstep because I can't comprehend how I could be misinterpreted borders on the absurd. (largely because early career people are insecure and paranoid) I find this problem is circular in that you shoot less straight yourself because you have a higher chance of alienating someone than you do of obtaining their understanding. (ie: shooting straight multiplies your value upward in the organization, and decreases downward in the organization. upward because of localized loyalty betrayal, downward because of the risk of loyalty betrayal.)

The net meaning of all this is you must speak in a manner that provides incentive to the size of the network of people in your audience. The problem in any company is not knowing someone's opinion. It is first, to find opinions that are actionable, and which can be exploited, and secondly, information needs to be passed in a format that preserves the network of incentives, even if that incentive is just maintaining personal status, or social comfort.

I gave something in the neighborhood of eight four hour talks in the past three weeks, and the feedback is fascinating: by and large it will be supportive. But, around three to eight percent of the people fail to understand the meaning, or twist it as criticism. (we have a way of tracking this believe it or not). Politicians have it the worst. It is almost impossible to say something that isn't a betrayal of some part of your network and still get elected. That is because, in general in a democracy, we try to coordinate people who have competing means and ends. Had we listened to the Federalist 10, we would all understand that you cannot coordinate people across economic interests without lying to them. And we have a far more diverse set of economic interests than we have had in the past. This same principle applies to business leaders. One way to counter it is to make sure all your people's rewards and compensation are as close to those of your customers as possible. Something our ex-military hierarchical management philosophy makes difficult.

Curt Doolittle writes:

Troy,
You are combining two different problems and in doing so putting together an ethical dilemma that does not exist. They are hiring you for the job to fit their agenda. You are trying to get a job and pursue your agenda. These agendas are in conflict. (excellence versus egalitarianism) From your viewpoint, excellence is moral, and egalitarianism immoral, which is simply a function of utility to you given a distribution of people. Their agenda, to you, is immoral. They cannot put their agenda in the contract. Only the job. So, instead, hold the employment contract and the job interview one one axis and the moral commitment to humanity along the other. You can have a moral commitment to excellence, you can have a moral and legal commitment to the job. But you do not have to have a moral commitment to their agenda, because that would make you immoral as well, or simply by making an agreement that is not expressly part of the job, you would empower their agenda, which is immoral by secondary factors. (Jesuit logic.)

Troy Camplin writes:

Well, the dilemma lies in what each of us think that the job entails. I think the job of professor in higher education is to teach the best and brightest to become better, more learned people so they may become "the leaders of tomorrow." In the interview I was led to believe that the chair of the department was in agreement with me, and more that the department in question offered a very challenging major. In actuality, the students were primarily those who could not succeed in any other major (I had elementary education rejects), with a handful of students who actually thought of the major as being the most difficult and challenging. Further, it then only later came out that the chair believed in an egalitarian philosophy of education, and primarily saw his department as providing a way for students who couldn't succeed at anything else to graduate. That, I hadn't signed up for. Thus, I resigned the position and withdrew my application for a full time position in the department. How am I supposed to talk about this in an interview for a job (a very practical question in my case)?

Curt Doolittle writes:

By saying "..the position evolved to where we were simply trying to find a way for students to graduate who were unable to qualify by other means. And while I respect and laud that ambition, I felt that I was not passionate about teaching under those circumstances and instead felt I would do better justice to students with higher aspirations. At this early stage of my career I want to exercise my enthusiasm for teaching. There is no more to it than that. It's a good chair, and a good school I'm just excited about what I do and want an environment where I can better effect students."

This is entirely true, and not an ethical dilemma for you. Unfortunately, i can read frustration into your explanation above and you have to figure out why that is and drop it. Because other people will make that judgment as well. Your previous employer is fulfilling a necessary role in society that he is paid for and students pay him for in return and your difference in preferences is merely that difference in preferences. The fact that it has material economic impact to you is a cost you must pay for indulging your preferences, which is something we all must absorb. -cheers

Troy Camplin writes:

Curt, thanks for the advice. A third party can often help get past the annoyance factor. It basically boiled down to this: the universities now sell degrees; I sell education. The two are unfortunately in conflict.

Morgan writes:

This is so simple as to be laughable. One of the blind-spots of academia economists and ideologue right-wingers is that they assume, for whatever reason, that people in top corporate positions are somehow there because of some sort of competence at some productive skill. I have worked at some of the largest corporations in the world and it is perfectly clear to anyone who actually looks at what is really going on that the people who get ahead are skilled, often exclusively, at politics and intrigue. The ability to advance in most corporations is completely independent of any actual productive skill. Once this concept is understood, then it is perfectly clear why 'straight-shooters' rarely advance in corporations. They are sitting ducks for those skilled at deceit and manipulation.

morgan writes:

Remind me again what happened to the generals who disagreed with Bush on the war in Iraq? Who predicted that we would need more troops for the occupation? Can you remind me? I seem to remember that Clinton fired them but something doesn't seem right with that.

Troy Camplin writes:

Oftentimes those who advance to the very top of a corporation do have good social skills. However, a CEO is only considered good if he makes profits for the company. So he does have to be good at something. If he's not, he won't hold his position for long, no matter how smooth a tongue he has.

Unfortunately, this is not the case in either government or education, where it is the smooth talkers who always get advanced over those who do a good job. I would be willing to bet that there are more straight shooters in business than there are in either government or education.

Morgan writes:

Is it the executives who get fired when their companies hit hard times? Or is it the 'straight shooters' and the people not so good at blaming others?

aaron writes:

Increased income is usually attributed to activities of upper levels of management (though, barring incompetence, most of it is probably random), and that's where the income is generally dispersed to. The decisions and work (actual value added) of these upper-level employees are well below the capabilities of the memebers of the talent pool, so most of the work in these positions is actually social gaming. A straight shooter is easily read and played. No matter how much more intelligent, he will be taken advantage of.

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