Thursday, January 29, 2009

More regal than the king

A friend taught me a new word tonight, one she had learned from her daughter. It is myrmidon. Actually it is a pretty old word, but I had never heard it.

From this source, we get the following definition: "A loyal follower; especially: a subordinate who executes orders unquestioningly or unscrupulously."

One of the dangers for a CEO is the tendency for your subordinates to take what you say, sometimes in passing, and execute it to a degree you never intended. Henry II, a pretty high ranking "CEO," discovered this after he said in exasperation one day, "Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?"

I always try to surround myself with people who will question my assertions and conclusions, but even at BIDMC where (trust me!), very little goes unquestioned, I have had people behave like myrmidons. From time to time, people have assumed that I meant something I did not and then proceeded to design whole systems to make sure it would be implemented, even to the point of ignoring or covering up substantive and documented facts and factors that would make the conclusions impractical or unrealistic. Such is the unintentioned power of the office.

Do you have stories of similar phenomena? Please post.

12 comments:

Anonymous said...

I will always be around to question U

Paul Levy said...

Whew, thanks!

Anonymous said...

And then there is "malicious compliance".

Anonymous said...

As someone who has mostly worked in a subordinate position to a person with much greater power and authority, I see your point. The "assistant" to anyone in a powerful position usually does have more influence than they realize. Either they unknowingly relay their superior's intentions the wrong way, which is usually the case, or they maliciously twist or supress information that is important for all to know. I have always liked being the assistant to someone important because it gives me a bird's eye view into very interesting issues, but your ultimate goal must always be the best interests of not just your "boss" but the entire organization you work for and honesty and integrity must guide your every move.

Karen Corrigan said...

Thank you for putting a name to this phenomena. I've experienced it both as a division head and as chief executive.

Anonymous said...

I have had this happen and after the fact when you discover what has occurred it can be very frustrating because sometimes you just want to say "can't you think for yourself". However, the responsibility rest mainly with the me to communicate clearly and to create an atmosphere that fosters critical thinking. If you are successful that is what separates leaders from titled executives.

Anonymous said...

I work at a federal agency and this happens frequently. Personally, I fight this but sometimes have to overcome incredible resistance from the other people I work with. There is also a tendency to assume that people who question their superiors will be retaliated against. Where I work, I think this is more perception than reality, but the fact that people believe this is a problem even if it isn't true.
Sometimes by the time we go back and talk to the "CEO" person, they don't even remember the offhand comment that their subordinates have been obsessing about. Sad. Normally I post comments under my real name but because of the nature of this discussion I probably should be anonymous this time. Sigh.

RovingWeaver said...

It's funny that I was just re-reading Bulfinch (on my Kindle - hadn't read it since grade school) the last couple of days, and had just read the myth of the creation of the Myrmidons from ants. Hera wiped out the subjects of King Aeacus and he begged Jupiter, his father, to replace them with subjects as numerous as the ants. It says "their dispositions resemble those which they had in their former shape. They are a diligent and industrious race, eager to gain, and tenacious of their gains." The meaning seems to have morphed a bit over the years...

Anonymous said...

By chiding the one who ran with the ball, are you not suppressing the very innovation that is needed in a dynamic organization? Why not chide the bureaucrat, who plays it safe and doesn't push boundaries? How is real quality transformation to happen if those who are vulnerable in their positions aren't rewarded for taking big leaps forward? A successful organization needs many successful leaders. Are you rewarding risk-averse or reward-seeking behaviors? The latter come with risks - sometimes of getting it wrong, but denigration shouldn't be part of the costs. It won't happen again. But neither will much else.

Paul Levy said...

I don't think this was chiding. It was just making a point. But to your point, successful leaders are not those who take the boss' statement as a command, but those who think for themselves and show initiative. Read elsewhere on this blog for how we encourage that.

Anonymous said...

In my office, I am known as the person who questions authority and who insists that we need to explain to the official in question that their offhand comment/initial take/lazy unthinking response is mistaken. This doesn't really make me popular. Sometimes by the time a meeting is held to discuss the issue, the "CEO" person doesn't even remember what it is they said.

hcleaderblog said...

Great thread. Consider this - while getting points on the scoreboard, carrying the ball as a leader - especially in hard times, doesn't always win the game for organizations. Check out Health Care Leadership Blog for commentary and link to a recent HBR article that hits this nail on the head.