“Merbaron Benz” For Sale: The Importance of a Philosophy

A 1991 Chrysler LeBaron convertible coupe in good condition, sold on the street, is valued at about $1,100 by Kelley Blue Book.  In stark contrast, a 1991 Mercedes-Benz 500SL convertible coupe in good condition, with similar mileage, is valued at about $5,000.

I drove a Chrysler LeBaron for a bit (I borrowed it from my great-grandmother).  While I’ve never driven a Mercedes 500SL, based on my generally underwhelming experience driving my grandmother’s car (and possibly as some sort of subconscious response to the covert laughs my high-school friends had at my expense every time I drove Grandma’s car into the high school parking lot), I’d go for the Mercedes any day if I had to choose.

The catch, of course, is the relatively steep price.  The Mercedes, even today (some 20 years after the two cars were manufactured) will cost you five times the value of the LeBaron.  Some creative entrepreneur, though, came up with a way for car owners to “have the Mercedes experience at the LeBaron price”.  They created a body kit (replete with those distinctive blocky Mercedes taillights and star emblem) that can turn a ’91 LeBaron into a Mercedes 500SL.

Well, mostly.  Actually, it really only makes your LeBaron look kinda like a Mercedes.  I saw one recently, and my first thought was, “there’s something strange about that Mercedes.”  My next thought: “that’s something masquerading as a Mercedes.”  It struck me that dressing up a LeBaron as a Mercedes isn’t all that different from a lot of management literature that I read.  Consultants, writers, thinkers and academics alike spend a lot of energy trying to devise ways to improve management and organizations—an admirable quest (and a goal I share).  But so much of what I read is tantamount to wrapping Mercedes-shaped body panels around a LeBaron and calling it a “high-performance, luxury vehicle”.

A “Merbaron Benz”

Much of what I read wraps creative ideas around the same old management philosophies that have served as the foundation of our organizations for over a century.  All you really end up with, though, is marginally improved business as usual; incremental improvements that don’t really tackle the fundamentals underlying the way we see management and organizations.

The real thing–a 1991 Mercedes-Benz 500SL

Unfortunately, I think that we who are leaders in organizations have been far more receptive to this model of improving management than luxury car buyers were of the “Merbaron-Benz”.  Many companies now refer to their employees as “team members”, and their managers as “team leaders”—a positive step, to be sure.  But they stop far short of addressing the fundamental philosophy; very few companies have gone so far as to say, “authority should flow from the bottom up; let’s let the true leader emerge by choice of the ‘team members’.”  Many organizations have acknowledged that “worker empowerment” will positively impact their organizations, and so they “empower” their employees to provide input to their managers—who ultimately make the final decision.  Again, a great thing; but almost nobody has flipped the underlying philosophy on its head and said, “let’s truly empower employees; let’s build a mechanism by which employees can ‘veto’ their managers.”

The potential for improvement is enormous, but we’re conditioned to management systems that are built on a foundational philosophy that Frederick Winslow Taylor characterized vividly before Congress in 1912 when he referred to:

“the man who is…physically able to handle pig-iron and is sufficiently phlegmatic and stupid to choose this for his occupation is rarely able to comprehend the science of handling pig-iron.”

It’s a sentiment that few of us share, yet our control systems; our arduous processes of getting projects and ideas funded; our rigid methods of defining jobs; our policies of “need-to-know”—they all flow directly from a philosophy that makes the same assumptions about our employees as Taylor made.

So here’s the challenge: let’s approach the reinvention of management beginning with our philosophy.  Ask yourself: what are my fundamental beliefs about my employees?  Are they uncaring automatons, simply out to take advantage of me?  Or are they, at heart, passionate, driven, thinking human beings, with a great deal of insight and expertise?  If your answer is the latter, then begin with that as your foundation, and ask yourself: what principles will allow that passion, drive and intellect to flourish?  What management systems will focus that insight and expertise toward maximizing the value our organization creates?

When we approach the problem as a matter of philosophy, then we’ll begin to truly re-invent management.  Until then, we’re simply driving the same old car with high-performance body panels bolted on.

- Originally published by The Self-Management Institute on October 8, 2011.