In defense of cynicism


You don’t like upper management, but you do like dogs. Pay no attention to the fact that this analogy is irrelevant. Because while other would-be-leaders are trying to figure out who moved their cheese, this blog will help you teach your dogs to fetch yours.

The Team as Pack

Dogs live in packs. People work in packs. Just because a motivational guru or some human resources practitioner came along and applied the term “team” to any group working together doesn’t make it so. Remember, a dogsled team is just a pack of dogs doing whatever the Musher tells them to do. And so is your team.

(Note: It is not a good idea to refer to the dogs that report to you as dogs. Use the more politically correct term: resources.)

If you lead a pack of creative people, never forget that they’re a sensitive litter. And sensitive folks are like dogs with good noses. They sniff out information quickly. They use this information so they can take the appropriate action. That’s why dogs with good noses are more likely to thrive. They always stay away from things that don’t smell good—unless it’s another dog’s ass.

But creative pups won’t kiss ass! They don’t like to get forced into activities that they know will disorient them or sap their confidence, no matter how much it will please their Musher. You’d be surprised at how many people do this, thinking they are being realists. It is not realistic to know who you are and to ignore your own self-knowledge.

 

Manager as Pack Leader

Let’s face it, if you’re looking for management tips from this blog, chances are you’re not standing proudly atop the highest rung of the corporate ladder. So while you may have a pack of dogs behind you, someone else is carrying the whip. That makes you the Alpha Dog, who answers to the call of the Musher—not the call of the Wild.

Leadership can best be understood by extending this dogsled metaphor a bit more. It takes several dogs to pull one human across a frozen tundra. But if those dogs wisely turn on the human and threaten to bite him or her, then that one human can pull many dogs instead. Leadership is like that. Except without dogs. And sleds. And frozen tundras. (And believe me, you don’t want your tundra frozen!)

Unfortunately, the gap between Alphas and the Mushers continues to expand to a degree unseen in our enterprising republic since the original Gilded Age. Fifty years ago, you had to travel to Brazil or Manhattan to observe such sharp disparities between rich and poor. Now you simply have to check the annual incomes (or “out-goes” as the case may be) of your local CEOs and compare them with yours.

Since the corporate world has finally been revealed as the hotbed of avarice and chicanery that the creative pack always suspected it to be, it’s more difficult than ever for such gentle mongrels to thrive and express their talents. Creative folks are often the intelligent and sensitive outsiders who constitute a vast, overlooked fraternity of the thwarted. Out of necessity they take jobs that grate against their best instincts; they work in environments that crush or trivialize their spirits; they put up with chronic frustration and subtle rejections; they watch the rewards go to drones and bullies. That’s why they are often accused of being cynical. Because they are.

 

A brief history of cynicism

Cynicism is a Greek invention, like the Doric column, the gyro sandwich, and sexy Christian pop star Christina Koletsa. The father of the Cynics (the name is capitalized when we speak about the ancient ones) were students of a now-obscure philosopher named Antisthenes—not to be confused with Antitheses, who was the father of devil’s advocacy (which will be covered in a future blog). Antisthenes was a student of Socrates, and like Socrates he believed that virtue was the greatest good. But he took it a step further than the old master, who would merely challenge unsuspecting folks to good-natured debates and let their own foolishness trip them up.

The Cynics were more blunt (blunter?) when it came to exposing foolishness. They’d hang out in the streets like a pack of dogs (cynic comes from the Greek word for dog), watch the passing crowd, and bark at anyone who seemed pompous, pretentious, materialistic, or downright wicked. Fiercely proud of their independence, they led disciplined and virtuous lives.

The most famous of the ancient Cynics was Diogenes, who took up residence in a tub to demonstrate his freedom from material wants. This cranky street-philosopher would introduce himself by saying, “I am Diogenes the dog. I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy, and bite scoundrels.” He’d use a lantern by daylight, explaining that he was searching for an honest man. Even Alexander the Great didn’t escape unscathed. When the young conqueror found Diogenes sitting in the marketplace and asked how he could help him, the old philosopher replied that “you can step out of my sunlight.”

As you might expect, the ancient Cynics’ habit of ridiculing their fellow citizens didn’t win them many friends. People generally don’t like to hear the hard truth about themselves, especially in public. But like the Blues Brothers, the Cynics felt they were on a mission from Zeus. As the Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote several centuries later, “A Cynic is a spy who aims to discover what things are friendly or hostile to man; after making accurate observations, he then comes back and reports the truth.”

Cynics have been making those observations and reporting the truth ever since. But telling the truth can get you into hot water. As much as the world needs its cynics, it still doesn’t realize that it needs them. Cynics today are habitually castigated by politicians, corporate chieftains, and other productive citizens with tidy lawns. Cynics are generally cast by these people as the heavies in the black hats, counterproductive miscreants who broil babies when they’re not spray- painting obscenities on public monuments. They are portrayed as masters of chicanery and intrigue, untrusting and untrustworthy. Since they are neither leaders nor followers, they’re expected to walk on the other side of the street-and the tidy-lawn folks get furious when they don’t, even when no one’s lifting a leg. Nobody loves a cynic, except maybe another cynic. And that’s why the Alpha must be cautious . . .

 

Dogs can only see in black and white, so put away the rose-colored glasses

Just as dogs can smell fear, they can also sense when you’re lying. So while it’s okay to tow the company line by pretending that you buy into the latest “scaling for growth” initiative, never try the same approach with your team. The Alpha may try to come across as more than a dog, but he is still only a dog. He may understand more of the Musher’s commands than the other dogs, but he can only communicate in the language of a dog. If the Alpha tries to be seen as a Musher, he runs the risk of losing the admiration of his team. And then a new Alpha will emerge.

          Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist.

George Carlin

Cynicism, after all, springs not from cruelty or viciousness, but from precisely the opposite: a fatal love of virtue. If your team was composed of mere realists, they’d have no need for cynicism; the world would never be disappoint them because they’d expect so little of it. But the best cynics are still idealists under their whipped hides. They want the world to be a better place, and they can’t shrug off the disappointment when it lets them down. Cynicism gives them the painful power to behold life shorn of its sustaining illusions.

And that’s why the Alpha must maintain a healthy dose of cynicism. But you must be selectively cynical. Howl about greed and cruelty and shoddy overpraised art; don’t growl about being alive. Believe it or not, despite all the evidence to the contrary, most creative people are firmly convinced that life is an astounding gift. On any given day they can find a hundred treasures out there for the snatching.

If you cannot find it in your nature to be cynical, then be sure to appoint a right-hand man (or left-hand woman) to be the one that removes your rose-colored glasses, snaps them in two, and helps you see the light. After all, the world needs you at your best, happy and fulfilled—not raving at shadows in the street, not forcibly pressed into service as a team player or a chronic consumer of branded healthcare.

So be merry in your black-and-white world, and proud. Steer clear of ideologues and fanatics; embrace kindness and heartiness and open laughter. Your selective cynicism will help you shun evil and propel you toward the good. Can you think of a better path to leadership and enlightenment?

 

EmailShare

About gherdling

Glenn Herdling, a graduate of Bucknell University with a B.A. in English and Psychology, began his publishing career in 1987 at Marvel Comics. As assistant editor on Marvel’s flagship Spider-Man titles, he was instrumental in increasing circulation to a record 3 million. Glenn was promoted to Editorial Director of Marvel’s Custom Publishing division where, in addition to writing and editing Beavis & Butt-Head, he served as an account executive and designed the company’s first award-winning Annual Reports. Glenn also spent 2 years in Marvel’s production department where he managed the production of over 20 monthly titles.

Leave a comment