Jeff Schmitt: From the Bottom Up

The Hosni Mubarak in Each of Us


The news plays like a Greek tragedy. A weary tyrant clings to power through uneasy alliances and brutal force. A populace, disgusted with corruption, limited opportunities, and broken promises, rallies against him. The old guard, terrified of losing their elite status, strike back. And everyone wonders: Will real change result, or will the same deck be reshuffled?

Sounds like Egypt, right? Sure, but it also reminds me of business in many ways.

With Hosni Mubarak, we're watching human nature play out on a grand stage. But in reality, aren't Egypt's ailments just a magnified version of what eats away at many companies? Excuse the populist rant, but life isn't fair. There will always be employees stuck in dead-end jobs, not applying their full potential, watching helplessly as the less capable (for whatever reason) leapfrog. They're fed up with the cronyism, unspoken rules, and near misses. In Egyptian slums, people cope with futility by blending in; in 6x8 cubicles, they disengage. In both cases, they simmer.

Guess where they're directing that pent-up anger? It's toward that oblivious guy at the top who apparently sees nothing wrong with the status quo. Chances are, that's you. You may view yourself as a regular person, but to many you're a symbol. And there's a big difference. Symbols take on a life of their own. As with a Rorschach, people project all of their disappointments onto you. Fair or not, it's easier to attack a symbol than a man.

March on the C-Suite

So let's shift from Tahrir Square to your parking lot. Imagine a mob of employees are marching, demanding your resignation. They're claiming you're an incompetent failure. They're calling you a crook and a tyrant. They're popping off in the media, airing your dirty laundry for customers and competitors alike. Worse yet, they're lining up key stakeholders against you.

Yeah, you talk a good game about corporate social responsibility. But it's easy to patronize in peaceful and profitable times. The real proof, big shot, comes when you're in Hosni Mubarak's shoes. Consider this: Your employees (or board) have pushed you into a corner. They're attacking everything you've built, threatening your legacy. How would you react? Think it'd be "Aw, shucks. They're right. I'll pack up now. Sorry for any inconvenience"? Don't kid yourself; you didn't reach this level by being a saint. This little uprising wouldn't go over well with you. Under pressure, you'll plot and lash out, no different from anyone facing loss. Despite your academic pedigree or instilled values, you'll revert to one-party rule: yours. Your position has made you renowned and wealthy. And for all of your ambitious goals, there is still one that supersedes all others: staying in power.

Condemnation and protests be damned, that'll be your inevitable verdict. Unpopular? Name a leader who isn't at some point. For you to leave, it'll take more than complaints that you've lost touch, credibility, and trust. Even if you wanted to go, how could you save face? No, you're facing the end of your career, one in which you've sacrificed, made the tough decisions, and did what you thought was best. Would you step aside for an unpredictable result? I don't think so. Here's what you'd really do:

Make Concessions: You like things the way they are. But you need to extend the proverbial olive branch to break the standoff. Behind the scenes, you'll grant the opposition an audience, allow them to voice their grievances, and give the appearance that you're open and reasonable. You may even give up something, leading them to believe they notched a victory. But you won't forfeit much. More important, you'll keep control. The diehards will claim it's too little too late, that the clock is winding down. And you agree … because the clock is your friend. Inevitably your critics will tire and move on—and everything will blow over, or so you hope.

Dig In: We all pay homage to free speech, until someone tells us to look in the mirror. That's when what we claim to believe conflicts with what we want to protect. The latter will win every time, regardless of the consequences. Facing unrest, you'll fall back on your inflated sense of self. Like many before, you'll make the same justifications: "They couldn't survive without me. Only I can hold it all together." You might even believe it yourself. In your bunker, you'll cash favors and grease palms, lining up your remaining allies to do your dirty work. It'll take scorched earth to outlast this. But this is business, and that's a price you can accept. For you, it's better than the alternative.

Change the Conversation: The best defense is a good offense. You'll attempt to marginalize your detractors, labeling them as a vocal minority, malcontents, losers, and disruptive forces. You'll question their intentions and legitimacy, attack reputations, stir fear, twist words, and rewrite history, always playing to the fence-sitters. If that doesn't work, you can always resort to threats and arm-twisting. Think you'd never resort to thuggery? Bet you didn't envision fighting dirty, either.

Infiltrate: You're reaching the tipping point. Even if you win, nothing will ever be the same. What matters now is that you hold on to what you can. To do that, you need to get names and intel. So you'll send your spies, to sew dissent and pit managers and reports against each other. Stirring up brawls would be a bonus. In other words, distract your enemies from what first unified them: deposing you.

Crack Down: They've had their moment. But enough is enough. You obviously can't use water cannons, gunfire, rocks, and whips on your employees, let alone toss them into the gulag. However, you still have plenty of tools. You can deliver the "my way or the highway" speech, along with making examples of the instigators. You can temporarily suspend certain perks they've taken for granted, such as holiday bonuses. Of course, you'll clamp down on communication, to keep them focused on the task at hand. Bottom line: When push comes to shove, you'll bare your teeth and bloody your knuckles. If they live in fear, so be it. Jobs are few and far between, you calculate. They'll make peace with it.

Retaliate: You've emerged victorious. But you still have a few scores to settle. And you've kept a list. Of course, it wouldn't be prudent to punish those dissidents immediately. So you wait and let them sweat, picking them off one by one cloak-and-dagger style. Maybe you deliver a scathing review, deny a promotion, dispense unsavory assignments, or isolate them from the group. The opportunities to humiliate them are endless. You'll deliver your message. HR won't dare cross you. And your peers will turn a blind eye. Obviously you'll go easy on the young people, the lifeblood (i.e., cheap labor) of any organization. But you can rely on attrition to flush out the rest.

So do everyone a favor: Quit shouting "Why doesn't Mubarak just resign!" at the television. Call it sympathy for the devil, if you want. Yes, Mubarak is a ruthless despot. But he is a man, too. Like anyone with power, he doesn't want to give it up. Deep down, you know you'd feel the same. Just imagine giving up something you've dedicated your life to preserving. You may know it's time and it's the right thing to do. But try taking the step of actually abandoning it. Not so easy, is it?

It's natural to sympathize with the protesters. In the absence of progress or options, taking to the streets is the only logical response. They're heroes, and I hope they succeed. But let's drop the false piety about freedom and fairness. They're abstractions, paradoxes even, that we struggle to apply in our dealings with others … no different from the way Mubarak does. In the end, we're probably no better than he is.

Jeff_schmitt
Jeff Schmitt is an online columnist for Bloomberg Businessweek. He has spent 17 years in sales, marketing, project management, training, legal compliance, and recruiting. You can reach him via e-mail or follow him on Twitter.

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