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 claims 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.

Lazy and Stupid

Most organizations have some managers within them who are lazy and stupid—at least, that has been my experience. Would you agree with the general that you can leave them alone, because they do no harm? I doubt it. Most organizations claim they try to get rid of any employee who is found to be lazy, let alone stupid as well. Maybe they try, but 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.

Hardworking and Clever

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 smoothly. 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 executives?

Lazy and Clever

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.

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, in his words. 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. Maybe they were actually lazy and stupid people trying hard to seem busy, but too stupid to choose the right things to be busy about. It certainly felt like busyness for its own sake, and it was hateful. Or were they naturally hardworking idiots? Some probably were, but it’s my opinion that most such people are clever enough. It is the organization that makes them function like morons.

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 sense.

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 hierarchy. We are well on the way to that point, which is probably why so many people cherish dreams of getting out of the corporate rat race. 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.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman, and a retired business executive, in that order. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his posts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to build a civilized place to work and bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership.

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