When the idea for this article struck me, I thought about 3 rough paths to leadership roles. There is the guy who started in the mailroom, and over a span of 20 or so years, works his way up and attends night school to expand his skills. Then there is the student that goes to college, gets a degree, perhaps works a couple of years at an entry level job, then gets an MBA and moves into management. Finally, there is the entrepreneur who starts his own company, and works to make it a success.
I’m not necessarily sure that the latter is a distinct path, as there are people who both type 1 and type 2 who have chosen it after becoming disillusioned by their first choice of path.
On competence building
In the first case, experiential learning and meeting objective performance requirements leads to the rise from mailroom to C-suite, in the second case academic learning and meeting objective performance requirements lead to the C-suite.
However, in all 3 cases, you produce a leader who may or may not be technically competent. In the first case, you get a person who is (ideally) well versed in all aspects of company functions, is familiar with the history and corporate culture, and has put in his dues. In the worst case, you get a sycophant who is great at playing politics and getting in with the right crowds in the company.
In the second case, you may get a person who is well-versed in the latest academic and theoretical aspects of running a business from an academic perspective. However, this person has very little experience with day to day management of a business, and may also be a sycophant.
Technical skills are what gets jobs done and targets met. If you do not produce, you do not sell, you do not get paid and you end up bankrupt. I can sum this up as “How to do your job”. If you’re in accounting this job is getting money in and paying money out, if you’re in programming, it’s writing code. If you’re an author it’s writing.
Social skills are what is used to sell, to interact with co-workers, to communicate effectively, and to manage people. A common story in business is of the company that promotes its best engineer to manager, then proceed to double-lose because they lost their best engineer (by moving him to management) and they got an incompetent manager. A side-effect of social skills, is that they also tend to be the backbone of any good manipulator.
The performance grid
I designed the performance grid to demonstrate how this breaks down:
As you can see the sycophant is low in technical ability, but high in social ability. The subject matter expert on the other hand is high in technical ability and low in social ability. Ways this influence the business world, can be the standard of promoting your best engineer to management, but the skill-set that makes a great engineer does not translate into making a great manager, as this requires higher social ability. On the other hand, having a high amount of social ability, does not translate into becoming a great manager either, as you lack the needed subject matter expertise to make the decisions you will be expected to make in a leadership position.
Human beings tend to take the path of least resistance. This is pretty logical, if you approach it from a scarcity mindset, which is what our ancestors are likely to have lived under. This breaks down as the human that expends the least amount of calories (energy) to get to a goal, is the human that survives to procreate more, thus those genes are passed on.
In the case of the person with high social skills, this means that it is easier for them to either fake technical skill to superiors, and then use technical subject matter experts to actually do the job of the high social skills person. This is a net benefit to the high social skills person because as they are the point of contact between management and technical, they can take credit for the subject matter expert’s work, and appear as this expert themselves. Thus creating a false belief in management, that the person who is a sycophant, is actually a high performer.
On the other hand, a technical subject matter expert, may want to use the high social skills person as a salesman to get their work known. The reasoning being that they gain larger benefits from developing higher technical skills rather than social skills. However, this is a fallacy by the technical expert, because it gives the high social skills person access to a subject matter expert skill-set without paying a cost.
How this translates to politics
Politics is most likely the field that requires the highest level of social skills, as the entire job of a politician is to be a negotiator and salesman. You negotiate with other politicians in order to get bills passed, alliances formed and make trade-offs. You also sell other politicians and the public on your ideas.
At the same time, politics encompasses many technical fields, construction, information technology, economics, sociology, psychology, law and many others. Yet, there is no requirement on the politician to have actually performed at a high level within these professions. What they do need is the social skill-set in order to get policy passed and the public sold on what is being done.
For instance, if we draw from the current cabinet of the United States of America. The secretary of defense is a physicist and the secretary of agriculture is a lawyer.
In a sense, politicians are heading down the path of managers where the birth of the professional manager is in lock-step with the professional politician. A person who has very low requirements for subject-matter expertise in the field they are managing. If we go back about 50 – 100 years, this would not happen. The question that remains to be answered is whether “management of people and resources” is its own area of subject matter expertise, furthermore, whether this is a productive path we are on. It stands to reason that if someone who is an expert on managing people and resources, is to manage a nation’s military during a period of conflict, that they would have to rely heavily on advisers with subject matter expertise in military matters.
The dangerous thing about advisers is when the adviser becomes more powerful than the king. Which is heavily compounded when the adviser(s) have a differing goal from the king. This was a fairly common occurrence in history, where a trusted adviser would sell out his king to further his own rise to power. Perhaps the adviser has higher ambitions than to remain an adviser and watching the King gain fortune and reputation from the work of the adviser.
This is in essence the catch .22 of being a subject matter expert, you are too valuable to be promoted from your current position, yet too ambitious to remain there. I suspect that some advisers go on to become entrepreneurs for this exact reason.
There is also a second important point, there can be efficient and objective key performance indicators for subject matter expertise. Where the professional manager or politician can explain away failure to perform as there being “cultural issues” within a company, or “if only we had a clear majority in the last election”. You cannot explain away a failure to perform at a subject matter expertise level.
Bonus: How this chain of reasoning translates to red pill theory
The key difference between the subject matter expert and the sycophant, is that the an idea may become reality in the hands of the subject matter expert, but it can only be translated to the public by someone with a certain level of social skills. Apple grew from the technical competence of Steve Wozniak but became a success because of Steve Job’s salesmanship and marketing approach.
These two work very well in pairs where 1 person has the subject matter expertise and the other has the salesmanship and social skills. However, in implementing red-pill theory you need to be both men. You need to be an expert in the theoretical foundations of game, the red pill theory, and many of the other topics, but you cannot implement them with success without developing basic social skills.
What red pill men can learn from career politicians and professional managers is that you can be devoid of subject matter expertise within a field, and still be an important presence in that field.
Dale Carnegie – How to gain friends and influence people