Once there was an ambitious man who felt destined for great things.
As a child, he had figured out how the country really worked.
Meritocracy was a myth. A fable as implausible as the tooth fairy, or the non-existence of Bielefeld.
The one true route to success was via the accumulation of influence and power.
The value of a person’s access and network mattered far more than their competence or skill.
At age thirteen, he won a scholarship established by King Henry VI that each year granted a handful of “poor boys” a free ride to attend the nation’s most prestigious school. Inevitably, the poor boys ate and lived separately from their aristocratic fee-paying classmates.
The toehold gained into the world of the nation’s leaders opened the door to all that was to follow.
Studying the right degree. At the right university. Funded by another scholarship.
Bypassing the seemingly obligatory modern-day stint of legalised slavery: internship.
Gaining a place on that well-trodden fast track: management consulting.
But only for those connected enough to advance.
Ruthless enough to succeed.
Tough enough to survive.
And smart enough to recognise it is all just a game.
What else could it be, when highly paid C-suite executives outsource the design of their business plans and operating models to unqualified consultants who have never run a business themselves?
A couple of decades later, the man’s life was unfolding largely according to the script.
He had built a strong personal brand.
Carefully crafted a public persona.
Cultivated contacts and favours.
Garnered a following.
Played the part.
While he waited to be considered old enough to be taken seriously, he had steadily advanced his way up the greasy pole. Leaping from important job to important job, usually only one step ahead of being exposed as incompetent or found to be wanting.
The centre of the attention, claiming credit for the work of others, wherever success could be found.
Distancing himself or invisible whenever failure loomed. Shirking accountability. Shifting blame.
And then he told the lie.
Not belief presented as fact. Organised religion. The primacy of a sporting team.
Not perpetuating society’s accepted myths. Overnight chocolate delivery via rabbit. Flying reindeer.
Not a white lie. Those feeling sparing answers to the “does my bum look big in this?” style questions.
Not a little lie. The store was out of milk when really we forgot. The late meeting, that was actually in the pub.
No, this was a big, blatant, bold, bald face lie.
Designed to mislead.
Telling people what they wanted to believe.
A lie that would be inevitably found out, and disproved.
But here is the thing: the ambitious man did it anyway.
He knew that people had short memories and shorter attention spans.
He knew that he would be called out, but was unlikely to be held to account.
The world had changed. There was no longer a long-lasting penalty for dishonesty. Nobody cared.
Politicians. Corporate executives. Lawyers. Insurance companies. Salespeople. Consultants. The media. Influencers. Bloggers.
Creatively interpreting rules.
Omitting inconvenient facts.
Weaving unsubstantiated narratives.
In fact, it seems that everyone expects to be lied to.
It is constant. Relentless. Unceasing.
Few are called out. Fewer still are held accountable.
Nobody went to jail over the nonexistence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction, though an estimated half a million people died as a result of the conflict.
It took more than 14 years for the fraudulent scientific paper that fuelled the anti-vaxxer movement to be retracted and its author struck off the medical register.
The exception, of course, are the whistleblowers. They are ritually sacrificed for self-declared breaches of non-disclosure agreements, corporate confidentiality, and official secrecy acts. Bernard Collaery and Bradley Manning are just two examples.
English case law, dating back 200+ years, permits a public official to be criminally charged for misconduct “where there is a breach of trust, fraud or imposition, in a matter concerning the public”.
Those found guilty of the criminal offence of misconduct in public office can be sentenced up to life imprisonment.
The offence has been used to charge public officials in cases ranging from the sale of information to journalists through to police officers standing idly by while a person in need of assistance died.
Imagine how different the corporate world would be if workers were potentially subject to similar criminal proceedings for deliberate dishonesty!
- Chief Executives who talk up the prospects of their company only days before it enters bankruptcy.
- Human Resources proclaiming there is no risk of a reduction in staffing numbers, despite the new office building only having half the capacity of the old one.
- Hiring managers who lie to candidates. Bonuses awarded solely on individual merit. Family-friendly flexible working hours. No requirement to be contactable outside of hours.
- Programme managers who divert attention from their own incompetence by delegating guilt and blame.
- Consultancies who underbid to secure jobs, knowing the work can’t successfully be completed within the time and resource constraints.
- Vendor pre-sales representatives who promise their product already contains functionality, when the features haven’t been built yet.
- Procurement managers who award tenders based on the best corporate hospitality rather than the most competitive bid.
- Architects of all stripes, who design something demonstrably not fit for purpose.
- Developers who write shoddy code.
- Testers who sign off products they hadn’t thoroughly tested.
- Property developers who buy zoning and approvals.
- Researchers, economists, and think-tanks who release propaganda and sponsored findings.
- Financial advisors who steer punters into the products that are best for the advisor, not the client.
- Auditors, who are commercially conflicted between highlighting corporate malfeasance and jeopardising lucrative consultancy work also performed by their firm.
- Job applicants who embellish or invent past experience.
- Unqualified “experts” promising easy answers to gullible punters seeking solutions to problems as varied as dating, entrepreneurship, finance, fitness, and weight loss.
Now imagine if a member of the public were able to privately prosecute the call centre operator, cosmetics salesperson, real estate agent, or recruiter when they caught them blatantly lying.
Being held liable for their conscious actions.
Getting punished when attempting to mislead for their own personal gain.
That idea would make many of us feel decidedly uncomfortable.
Have us squirming.
Recalling the lies we have told, the little and the not so little, throughout the course of our careers.
Embellishments on our resume.
Exaggerations told in our job interviews.
Cherry-picking of news included on our last status update report.
Selective editing during the review of our performance objectives.
If it could happen to them, what is to stop it happening to us?
We all purport to be aggrieved in this era of “fake news”.
When our prospective leaders tell blatant lies to our faces. Then we vote for them regardless.
When our employers deceive and mislead us. Then we work for them anyway.
Yet we all lie. All the time.
To our employers. Ducking out for a coffee. Gossiping with colleagues. Making a personal call. All while on the clock, during time we have already sold to our employer.
To our families. The excuses we pretend are reasons for not enjoying life more.
To ourselves. The bad choices we make, but refuse to own. About exercise. Food. Happiness. Hopes and dreams. Money. Relationships. Time.
If we can’t be honest with ourselves, and with those closest to us, then why do we hold others to a higher standard? A standard they can’t possibly live up to? A standard we couldn’t meet ourselves?
It seems to me that part of what makes us most frustrated and disillusioned by our leaders is they are a partial reflection of ourselves.
Not the altruistic, diligent, generous, hard-working, and trustworthy way we like to imagine ourselves.
Rather, the opportunistic and self-serving side that we all possess but few like to admit to.
Politics of public office
Recently a member of the public attempted to privately prosecute one of the leaders of the “Vote Leave” campaign for the misconduct of public office. After crowdsourcing hundreds of thousands of pounds to fund the case, he succeeded in having the leader in question summonsed to appear.
The leader appealed the summons, his barrister arguing:
“There has never been a case in this country nor, so far as we are aware, in any democracy, in which an attempt has been made to prosecute any individual, whether candidate, office holder or other, for false statements about public facts made in and for the purpose of political campaigning,
Such a prosecution is wholly alien to the common law democracies, where no such law has been passed and such conduct has never been considered to be criminal”
The highest court in the land agreed, quashing the summons and denying leave to appeal.
It is worth noting that not even the defence disputed the fact that a blatant lie had been told!
Upon hearing the news, the member of the public bring the legal action summarised what it meant:
“… our courts have seemingly sanctioned the misuse of status, opportunity and influence… It is a green light for all public office holders to lie.”
Joseph de Maistre once wrote that “in a democracy people get the leaders they deserve”.
Perhaps that is true.
If liars win, then big liars win big.
Getting to the top is only half the battle. Once in power, the challenge is remaining there.
Self-preservation focussed politicians have become masters at this, capturing the electoral process.
Gerrymandering electorates. Choose the voters and control the outcome.
Controlling candidate selection processes. Appoint your allies and exclude your enemies.
Tweaking voter eligibility rules. Exclude those groups who are unlikely to support their cause.
They do what has always been done. Play the game.
Searching for a happy ending
That ambitious young man learned from the best and played the game well.
He may have been branded a charity case throughout his school years, but he still wore the old school tie and was a member of the old boys club.
The access this gave and the doors it opened were priceless.
Not a guarantee of success. In life there are no guarantees. It did provide a hell of an advantage though!
He followed the age-old lessons that he had been taught so well.
Build a team of loyalists beneath you. To promote your cause. To watch your back.
Claim the credit. Shift the blame.
Cultivate allies and collect favours to advance your way across the board.
Destabilise rivals whenever an opportunity presents.
Destroy wounded foes.
Show no mercy. Take no prisoners.
There is always a younger, stronger, better-connected rival coming for you.
Eventually one will take you down. So keep your snout in the trough until the gig is up.
People will believe what they want to believe, regardless of whether it is supported by evidence. So tell them what they need to hear to help you achieve your own ends.
Lie to them if necessary. Everyone else is.
Whether we realise it or not, we are all players in the game. Our personal values determine the rules we choose to follow, and in turn how far we advance.
It isn’t fair
It isn’t pretty.
It isn’t what they taught most of us in school.
We each choose our actions, and decide how to conduct ourselves. A clear conscience and a good night’s sleep depend upon those choices.
A Hollywood movie would end this story with a satisfying twist where the ambitious young man gets his comeuppance. Just desserts. Karmic retribution. Poetic justice.
Alas, that isn’t how the real world works.
Instead they become the CEO. The President. The Prime Minister.
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