In (True) Praise of Dullness

David Brooks left his comfort zone this week for a column on CEOs he titled, “In Praise of Dullness.”  At one point he offered a defense of his thinly-veiled distaste for the subject–

…people in the literary, academic and media worlds rarely understand business…the virtues that writers tend to admire — those involving self-expression and self-exploration — are not the ones that lead to corporate excellence.

He’s right about corporate excellence.  Healthy organizations aren’t designed for self-expression and self-exploration, or for people who are primarily motivated by those pursuits.  They’re designed for self-suppression and other-exploration.  Done right, they’re designed to get you out of your own head and into the heads of your colleagues and customers.  It rarely translates into sexy copy, which may explain Portfolio’s spectacular descent.

Brooks uses most of his energy to summarize the recent literature on patterns among successful corporate leaders, observing an emphasis on persistence, focus and analytic ability.  These aren’t traits he particularly values, and he doesn’t hesitate to make the jump to caricature.  The corporate drones he imagines at the top of competitive companies are “anal-retentive and slightly boring.”  They lack empathy and warmth.  And since their underdeveloped people skills keep them from living a more fantastic life of the mind, they tend to congregate in “such unlikely places as Bentonville, Omaha and Redmond.” 

Dull is in the eye of the beholder, of course.  The most interesting people I know are moved deeply by trying to make organizations work, by the creativity and human potential they find lingering around the water cooler.  But here’s another frame on Brooks’s anal-retentive types: unlike the rest of us, they don’t need to make the story about them.  They don’t need to be adored to sleep comfortably at night.  They don’t need our affirmation or approval, which frees them up to focus on the thing that matters most in organizations: creating an environment where other people thrive.

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