Half awake, with an early morning NPR broadcast in the background, I think I heard, though I hope I did not, the author of the latest business book telling CEOs the great lessons to be learned from kids playing in a sandbox.

Is that frightening or what? Am I the only one who’s both amused at and a little scared by the endless succession of “how-to” books for executives?

I mean, these people run organizations that are bigger and richer than most governments. Heck, they own, directly or indirectly, most governments. We are told that only corporate managers can be counted upon to do things practically, efficiently, competitively, and with technical superiority. But I see them running in herds from one executive fad to another, listening to glib consultants who have never run anything more complex than word processors.

In the early morning haze I pondered this paradox as I shooed the cat out. Suddenly the next business book popped fully formed into my mind. (Sorry, it was very early and I couldn’t stop it.) “The Catbox Guide to Business Success,” or “The Seven Behaviors of Highly Successful Felines,” or “All You Really Need to Know about Multinational Corporations, You Can Learn from Your Cat.”

The main points are obvious:

  • Keep your coat immaculate. Looks are far more important than behavior.
  • When you foul something, cover it over carefully, so no one knows who did it.
  • When you hunt down a small business, toy with it awhile, kill it, yowl proudly, and deposit the corpse in a visible place.
  • Know how to purr ingratiatingly. Know how to scratch strategically. Know how to freak out and unleash rapidly moving claws in all directions at once. Know when and when not to do each of these things.
  • Obey every rule punctiliously as long as anyone is watching.
  • Never forget that other creatures feed you, shelter you, and clean up after you because you are intrinsically superior to them.

I chuckled as this list presented itself. (I have truncated it here — you can add to it.) But I can sustain bitter sarcasm just so long. My stream of consciousness was sounding like a Dilbert cartoon or a tedious Internet joke, so I turned my attention to the well of animosity out of which it so effortlessly bubbled.

 

Clearly I was making fun of consultants, business leaders, and cats all at the same time. I can easily trace the source of my hostility to cats. I’ve always had two or three or four of them. I’ve fed them, picked up their dead mice, watched them put on airs. I love them, but I wish they’d stop scratching the furniture. My Jungian friends would say I was letting out the Shadow, the unadmitted dark side of our relationship.

Could it be the same with consultants and CEOs?

Well, no, I don’t know them that well. I have never chosen to live with any of them.

Rush Limbaugh and his ilk would say my problem is “class envy.” I looked long and hard at that possibility and discarded it. I wouldn’t want the lives, wealth, stuff, jobs, responsibility or pride of the business folks. I don’t envy them; I pity them. The pity, I began to see, is connected with their susceptibility to business fads.

We have set them up to be infallible. They have accepted the charge. We all know it’s a myth. They are human beings, as flawed and foolish as the rest of us, maybe more so, because they are willing to pretend they know what they are doing, while they in fact hold more power than anyone could possibly discharge responsibly. We go along with the pretense because we need to think that someone is in charge, somewhere. But deep within us is the Shadow, our knowledge of the truth about our leaders. It seeps out in the fun of mocking them. Deep within them is the knowledge of the truth too, which makes them so often prickly, sensitive to criticism, and desperate to hire grand viziers to teach them tricks so they can appear to be in control.

This story is as old as kings and popes, with which humanity eventually got disillusioned. So we put our faith in presidents and senators. As they grew all too visibly empty and corrupt, we enthroned corporate emperors. There is always someone willing to take on the mantle and crown.

I wonder what it would be like to ground our social institutions on humility and humanity instead of pretense. To keep our concentrations of power at a scale ordinary mortals can handle. To stop elevating some of us to impossible positions, so the rest of us can expect too much of them and mock them for not filling that expectation.

It might be a relief to the CEOs as well as the rest of us. After all, like the rest of us, like the kids in the sandbox and the cats in the catbox, they are more lovable in the recognition of their flaws than in the delusion that they don’t have any. They may appreciate being re-admitted to the human race. After all, they don’t have nine lives. And when they fall, they don’t always land on their feet.