POWER, AUTHORITY AND OBLIGATION
by Allen Laudenslager access his Blog at: http://allenandson.blogspot.com/
and Bryan Neva Sr.
“Noblesse Oblige” is an old French phrase that literally translates as “nobility obligates.” It means that those who have power and authority, or who are privileged, rich or famous have a moral responsibility to display honorable, charitable, and exemplary behavior towards those less fortunate or to those dependent on them. In other words, whoever claims to be noble must conduct themselves nobly. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. summed it up nicely when he said: every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty. Farther back in history, Jesus tells us in Luke 14:48 that "For everyone to whom much is given, of him shall much be required."
The idea of “Noblesse Oblige” was created out of enlightened self-interest. The nobility had serfs who were dependent on them for land to farm, a place to live and protection from bandits. In medieval times all the land belonged to the nobility; the enlightened noble recognized that while he owned the land, without someone to plant and harvest the noble had no income. Seeing to the well being of his serfs was his noble obligation.
One of the main causes of the French Revolution (1789–1799) was the narcissism that developed among the French nobility. After several years of poor grain harvests, bread and food prices soared and the masses were starving while the nobility had plenty and ignored the plight of the poor. The nobility had developed an entitlement mentality: they remembered their privileges but forgot their obligations to the lower classes. Subsequently, the nobility lost their people’s respect and loyalty, and eventually they lost their privileges too.
Consider the current economic downturn that began with the economic crisis in 2008. Many companies (primarily concerned about their short-term profitability) cut significant numbers of their work force resulting in very high unemployment. The remaining work force (afraid for their own survival) had to absorb the increased workload while suffering decreased pay and benefits (not to mention high stress, low morale, and burnout). Subsequently, corporate profits soared. By 2011 companies in the S&P 500 index had a 17.1% increase in revenue, a 22.7% increase in net income, a 49.4% increase in cash reserves, and an 11.4% increase in revenue per employee (source: WSJ 4/9/2012). Essentially, companies did more with less.
Impressive as these figures look, these gains cannot be sustained. A dichotomy occurs over any economic cycle: during a recession companies become more efficient but have less growth; during a recovery companies have more growth but become less efficient. In order to grow, companies have to hire more people and increased hiring results in greater competition for workers, this competition results in higher employment costs, and those higher costs result in lower profit margins.
The good old days of companies treating their employees as their most valuable assets have been set aside in favor of cajoling them into working harder for the same pay and fewer benefits. The ideal of Total Quality Management has been replaced by Management Through Fear and Intimidation. In place of rewards they’re told they should be glad they still have a job. Corporate management has developed an entitlement mentality (like the old French nobility) by remembering their privileges but forgetting their obligations to their employees. Inevitably, they’ll lose their employee’s respect and loyalty too. Sooner or later, the economy will improve and those employees will go elsewhere.
Loyalty always starts with the person who has the power and authority. Loyalty is earned not given. Power is the ability to grant or withhold rewards, and authority is the power to influence the behavior of a person with less power. There’s no authority without a counterbalancing responsibility. So if you have the power and authority to make decisions then you’re responsible for those decisions and their results.
A recent study by Psychologist Paul Babiak showed that narcissism or sociopathic behavior among business managers runs four times higher than in the general population. Generally speaking, most people who aspire to positions of power and authority actually enjoy exercising power and control over others. It’s in their makeup and they’ll naturally gravitate to occupations that put them in these positions of power.
Some use their power and authority altruistically; many others use it capriciously or unfairly. Lord John Acton (1834—1902, British historian and moralist) famously wrote: Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. What tends to happen is that power seekers become narcissistic; they begin to believe their own press releases and act as if their power is a natural right and their authority is to be unquestioned. After all, they must be right or they wouldn’t have been granted the authority in the first place, right? Eventually, they lose their empathy for their underlings and they treat them like units of production rather than the human beings they are.
The key to avoiding falling into the entitlement trap is simply by learning a little good ol’ fashioned humility. Start by walking over to your company’s customer service center and imagine there’s no one there to answer the phones to take orders or to solve problems. You’re not going to sell anything and you’re going to lose the customers you have.
Next walk down to your company’s shipping and receiving department and watch the employees loading and unloading trucks. Now close your eyes and pretend that those workers aren’t there...your products are just sitting on the docks and the trucks are not getting loaded. How much money will you make if you don’t ship your products to customers?
Finally walk over to your payment and billing department and imagine there are no clerks there to send out invoices, collect payments, or pay the light bill. You’re literally not going to make any money.
It’s easy to think of all these workers as not being important because almost anyone could do these types of jobs and the jobs don’t pay very much. Customer service representatives are easy to hire, train, and replace. Loading and unloading trucks is cheap but it’s also very critical. The clerical work of paying bills or collecting payments is similar. In other words, the labor costs are inexpensive but the work is valuable.
Now extrapolate these examples out to your entire organization. How much value are all your other employees contributing to your long-term success? Who really produces and who is overhead? And really, how many nobles does it take to oversee the serfs? Enlightened self-interest should tell you that without workers you’ll have no income. Doing more with less can only work so long because people eventually get tired, burnout, and become less productive. There has to be a work-life balance.
The steering on your car is critical to driving, but part of the steering is held together by a five-cent cotter pin. Without that cotter pin the steering can fall apart and your car will go out of control. The steering cotter pin is a simple example that value is quite different from cost. In other words, a steering cotter pin is cheap but it’s also critical (just like the person answering the phones, loading and unloading your trucks, or collecting payments).
While you may not be willing to pay much for a steering cotter pin, enlightened self-interest should dictate that you value that inexpensive part in relationship to its contribution not it’s cost. Likewise, by recognizing that a relatively low paid employee might be critical to your long-term success, you should also begin to treat that worker with the respect their contribution, not their cost, deserves.