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Maybe corporations do get what they deserve

The German World War II general Erich von Manstein is said to have categorized
his officers into four types.

The first type, he said, is lazy and stupid. His advice was to leave them alone because
they don’t do any harm.

The second type is hard-working and clever. He said that they make great officers
because they ensure everything runs smoothly.

The third group is composed of hardworking idiots. Von Manstein said that you
must immediately get rid of these, as they force everyone around them to perform
pointless tasks.

The fourth category are officers who are lazy and clever. These, he says, should be
your generals.

Discovering this information set me to wondering how General von Manstein’s

categories might apply to business organizations today.

The lazy and stupid ones

Most organizations have some managers within them who are lazy and stupid—
at least, that has been my experience. Although they claim they try to get rid of

any employee who is found to be lazy, let alone stupid as well, they don’t seem
to be so successful, judging by the number who are left—some even in fairly
exalted positions.

Maybe one reason for this is that lazy and stupid people rarely do much active
harm. The harm they do is more often based on missing opportunities and stifling
the creativity of those who report to them. Bad enough, but not always easy to
turn into clear grounds for dismissal—especially if the person in question is
protected by someone powerful. Still, my guess is that even lazy and stupid
people today realize that the best route to self-preservation is at least to appear
busy and active.

The hardworking and clever ones

Von Manstein’s next group is made up of hardworking, clever people.

Organizations mostly want as many of these as they can get, for obvious
reasons. But you’ll notice that the general seems to confine them to the military
equivalent of middle management: jobs that are aimed at making everything run

I suspect one reason is that such people do make excellent administrators. They
can take orders from above and turn them into practical ways of achieving the
desired results. Some are so useful in these roles that they are never allowed to
rise higher. Others maybe want to progress, but lack something that—at least in
von Manstein’s view—is essential to become a good general. That something, it
seems, is laziness. He wants the choice of generals to be made from people who
are clever, naturally, but also lazy. Why should that make them better top

The lazy and clever ones

One reason might be that laziness is the principal spur to creativity. Lazy people
are always looking for easier, simpler, and less arduous ways to do things. If they
are also clever, the chances are that they will find them, and make them
available to everyone else.

Lazy people are also natural delegators, and find it very attractive to let their
subordinates get on with their work without interference from above. Lazy, but
bright, generals would be likely to make sure they focused on the essentials and
ignored anything that might make for unnecessary work, whether for themselves
or other people. In fact, it’s hard to see why you would not want your top
managers to be as lazy as they are clever. It would indeed make them great
strategists and leaders of people.

The hardworking idiots

Now to the last group: the ones von Manstein said that you should get rid of
immediately. That group is made up of people who are hardworking idiots. He
says such people force those around them into pointless activities.

I don’t know about you, but I suffered from several bosses I would unhesitatingly
put into precisely that category. They were extremely hardworking—and
demanded the same from their subordinates—but what they set others to work
on (and what they spent their own time in doing) was mostly worthless.

Today’s fast-paced, macho style of organizational culture creates, and then

fosters, the hardworking idiot. Indeed, I think it takes a great many sound, useful,
hardworking, and clever people and turns them into idiots by denying them the
time or the opportunity to think or use their brains.

If you don’t look busy all the time, you’re virtually asking for a pink slip, never
mind what it is that you are doing—or whether it is actually of any use to the
organization or its customers. It’s all so rushed and frenetic. If all that matters is
“meeting the numbers” and getting things done (whatever those things are),
managers will be forced into working hard at projects that they know make no

The dumbing down of organizations

The dumbing down of organizations isn’t caused by poor educational standards

or faulty recruitment. It’s due mostly to the crazy pace that is set, and the
obsessive focus on the most obvious, rigidly short-term objectives. The result is a
sharp increase in hardworking idiots: people who are coerced into long hours and
constant busyness, while being systematically forced to act like idiots by the
culture around them.

Don’t ask questions. Don’t cause problems by thinking, or waste time on coming
up with new ideas. Don’t think about the future, or try to anticipate problems
before they arise. Just keep at it, do exactly what is expected of you, and always
get the most done in the least amount of time and at the lowest cost. If von
Manstein is correct, the result will be that more and more employees will be used
to perform essentially pointless tasks. Isn’t that exactly what we see?

I think that even a fairly cursory look around most organizations today would
confirm the accuracy of this observation. Consider all the time wasted in
unnecessary meetings. The obsessive emphasis on staying in touch, regardless
of need. The torrents of e-mails, most of which are simply copies of documents of
no direct relevance to the people to whom they are sent. The constant collecting
of data for no clear reason. Management by numbers and motivation by
numerically-based performance measures. Trust replaced by obsessive control
and leadership by forced ranking of subordinates against vague criteria
determined by committees with no idea of the specific circumstances.

You do not need ethical insight or human understanding to operate a machine,
and machines are how many of today’s leaders see their organization: machines
for making quick profits, not civilized communities of people working together to a
common end. We can only hope some organizations at least see the error of
their ways before the hardworking idiot becomes the commonest creature in the

It’s no fun to be forced to deny your own intelligence on a daily basis. We can still
reverse the trend, but only by dropping the current out-dated dogmas, dangerous
half truths, and total nonsense that disfigure management thinking. Let’s do it
before it is too late.