THE CATBOX GUIDE TO BUSINESS SUCCESS
Half awake, with an early morning NPR broadcast in the background, 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.
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
Suddenly the next business book popped fully formed into my mind.
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
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
- When you hunt down a small business, toy with it awhile, kill it, yowl proudl
and deposit the corpse in a visible place.
- Know how to purr ingratiatingly. Know how to scratch strategically.
to freak out and unleash rapidly moving claws in all directions at once.
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 --
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
I turned my attention to the well of animosity out of which it so effortlessly
Clearly I was making fun of consultants, business leaders, and cats all
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
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
Rush Limbaugh and his ilk would say my problem is "class envy." I
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.
know it's a myth. They are human beings, as flawed and foolish as the
us, maybe more so, because they are willing to pretend they know what
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
often prickly, sensitive to criticism and desperate to hire grand
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.
always someone willing to take on the mantle and crown.
I wonder what it would be like to ground our social institutions on
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
filling that expectation.
It might be a relief to the CEOs as well as the rest of us. After all,
rest of us, like the kids in the sandbox and the cats in the catbox,
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
all, they don't have nine lives. And when they fall, they don't always
(Donella Meadows is an adjunct professor at Dartmouth College and
the Sustainability Institute in Hartland, Vermont.)