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Power, prestige and status in business life

In business life, there are countless ‘emperors’ who look at the mirror but fail to see their nakedness.In business life, there are countless ‘emperors’ who look at the mirror but fail to see their nakedness.

As children we all loved the Hans Christian Andersen tale entitled The Emperor’s New Clothes. This tale tells how the Emperor, tricked by two swindlers, pretended to see what wasn’t there because he was afraid that his prestige would be shuttered by the real face of truth. The vain emperor agreed to wear inexistent clothes and went strolling around town naked while his subjects looked on in reverential fear. Then an innocent child shouted: “The emperor has no clothes on!” and everyone laughed.

In business life, as indeed in other spheres of life, there are countless ‘emperors’ who look at the mirror but fail to see their nakedness. Instead they see symbols of power, prestige and status. This phenomenon usually afflicts managers who have reached the pinnacle of their inefficiency. They are shining examples of the Peter Principle: employees tend to rise to their level of incompetence.

This can happen at any stage in one’s career, but is more common in some middle-aged managers who realise that their skills are obsolete and that younger executives are more competent and capable of dealing with the complexities of business life. These graying and anxious managers fear being considered mere ‘normal’ people and try to find relevance in their professional life by wearing the insignia of prestige and power to assert their status. They look at the mirror and do not like what they see. So they imagine being dressed up as superior beings.

The symbols of prestige can take various forms: inflated titles, designer clothes, a top brand company car, the latest smartphone model, a company expense account, and frequent business travel mostly to pleasant touristic destinations. Not content with their generous salary and abundant executive perks, the anxious senior executive expects his bosses to give him a pay increase in the belief that this is an acknowledgement of his indispensable contribution to the success of the company.

While the not-so-latent objective of many business executives is to attract the adulation of their subordinates and the envy of their peers, they are really suffering from low self-esteem and want constant reassurance that they are indeed superior to those around them.

The human inadequacy of such managers is more evident in their private lives. Marital breakdowns and personality disorders are just a few consequences of the inordinate importance that some executives give to their career ambitions. The fake friendships that abound while one is in a position of authority will disappear as soon as one retires to the anonymity of normal life.

Retirement is often traumatic for those who are obsessed with the need for the constant praise of colleagues, media attention, the latest gizmos, and other hollow symbols of status. Finding the right balance between enjoying one’s work while having a life outside the workplace is indeed challenging.

The fake friendships that abound while one is in a position of authority will disappear as soon as one retires to the anonymity of normal life

There comes a time in life when senior executives should judge their success and self-worth in life by their ability to enjoy passing on their knowledge to others who will sooner or later replace them at the helm of the business they work for. These executives also need to distinguish between what really makes them a source of enlightenment to their younger staff – experience and wisdom – and the colourful wrappers that shroud the image of business leaders in the eyes of the public and the media.

Every stage in life has its benefits. Most industrial psychologists agree that older workers are usually happier than younger ones as we all mellow with age and learn to deal with our limitations. Advancing age inevitably leads to the weakening of some of the strengths we had when we were younger. But the antidote to this is not to pretend that we can continue to behave in the way we did when we were brimming with ambition to get to the top.

I admire those executives who after years of successfully leading their organisations are able to reinvent themselves in new roles that may not be as financially or socially rewarding as when they were actively engaged in business life. For the wise and self-confident executive there is more to life than gold cufflinks, designer suits, flashy executive cars, insincere adulation of subordinates, frequent useless business trips, and inclusion in powerful business networks.

When we look at the mirror we need not be shocked by the wrinkles we see, but satisfied that we can still stand on our own two feet without the props of status symbols.

johncassarwhite@yahoo.com

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