The ego versus the organisation
Published: December 17, 2009 at 9:23am
As more present and former politicians emerge to sulk and stamp their feet in public – the latest are Joe Psaila Savona and Michael Bonnici, in letters to The Times which that newspaper quite understandably turned into a news story, and now Franco Debono’s childish behaviour in parliament – the thought occurred to me that this kind of individualistic thinking and ‘ferrets in a sack’ behaviour is the result of a political scene dominated by lawyers, doctors and architects.
I may be way off the mark here, but I think the fundamental problem is that the vast majority of our MPs, on both sides of the house, come from professional backgrounds which have not helped them to understand the concept of working within an organisation.
People with a work background in organisations – whether it is the military, an international charity, a pharmaceuticals conglomerate or even just a straightforward products distribution company in Malta – are drilled in the understanding that the interests of the organisation come before the personal interests of any individuals who work for it.
It is made very clear to them that anyone who is not prepared to cooperate in this understanding has no place within the organisation.
Even those who start out with very different ideas come to see the wisdom of this: pursuing the interests of the organisation will ensure its survival (a good thing); but pursuing the interests of those who work within it will bring about its deterioration and possible collapse (a bad thing).
I cannot imagine a large corporate office packed with people sulking and slamming doors because they haven’t got the promotion or pay rise they demanded, refusing to cooperate because they are in a bad mood and not turning up for meetings or insulting and undermining the chief executive because he isn’t doing what they want him to do.
A quick analysis of the various sulks and temper tantrums on public display among politicians reveals a common factor: the failure to understand that an organisation is not there to satisfy the personal desires and ambitions of the individuals who operate within it, but to ensure its own successful survival so that its essential objectives may be achieved.
This applies whether we’re talking about the army, a soft drinks manufacturer or a political party.
Political parties of whatever stripe are the most afflicted of organisations because unlike the army they cannot court-martial their recalcitrant people and unlike soft drinks manufacturers they cannot fire them or issue warnings.
We only have to remember Alfred Sant’s Vigilance and Discipline Board and how that came across to the rest of us. We didn’t like it. We saw it as evidence of totalitarianism rather than an attempt at getting a political party to run like a proper organisation.
We like our political parties to be democratic on the inside as well as the outside. But democracy is the worst possible way to run an organisation. One can argue that the financial services collapse of the last year or so was the result of a too-democratic approach to lending and to rewarding the individual within the organisation, to the point where the whole thing became unsustainable.
Individual needs and desires were put before what should have been paramount: the successful survival and growth of the organisation and the industry.
For political parties, this conflict between democracy and efficiency in the running of the organisation is a perennial conundrum. The democratic process of election will not guarantee the best possible party leader – as we have seen. Nor will it give the party the best possible secretary-general – as we have seen.
There appears to be no solution, because leaders and secretaries-general cannot be imposed on the party. It would speak ill of the party’s approach to democracy. But at the same time, the wrong leader or secretary-general is a major source of the ills which afflict both parties in Malta, leading to much time and energy being consumed through fire-fighting situations which would never have cropped up had the parties been run like any other organisation.
The problem is compounded by the fact that politics is a magnet for the self-centred and selfish, for people with large egos. This is the most basic reason why, the world over, there are far more men in politics than there are women – but it is the most overlooked reason.
Some politicians like to argue that they are in politics because they are selfless. Whoever they are and however nice they might be, they convince nobody. The truly selfless work for charities and receive no public acknowledgement and very little reward of any sort except the knowledge that are they helping others.
Some of these politicians point out that they have forgone a potentially lucrative career in the private sector to focus on party politics, and this means they are not driven by money. What they fail to mention is that when it came down to the choice between money and no power or public acclaim on the one hand, and power or public acclaim but no money on the other, they chose the latter.
Life is all about choices.
Of course, the feeling that you can make a difference to people’s lives is a factor, too – but it seems to me that anyone who wants to make a difference to people’s lives and who starts out by campaigning for a seat in parliament, then going through the circus of election, and then sitting for years as a backbencher and perhaps never becoming a cabinet minister, let alone prime minister, is taking rather the long route to making a difference to people’s lives.
Managing an organisation in which so many people are ego-driven and with such a high sense of personal entitlement – and in which nobody can be fired or issued with warnings, no matter how bad the behaviour or how dangerous they might be to the organisation – cannot be anything other than a hellish nightmare.
The only thing that comes close is the entertainment industry, with its stars and its legions of others in hot pursuit of stardom, throwing their weight around and demanding to be up there on the silver screen.
But actors and singers are attractive and entertaining and their personal lives keep us endlessly amused. The same can’t be said of politicians. In the end, we just look at them and think: ‘How tiresome. It’s not about you. It’s about us.’
This article is published in The Malta Independent today.