Elites: can you rise to the top without losing your soul?

22 March 2021 | Management Faith & Society

With my fifth book publishing in a week (29 March), I introduce here short audio trailers which explore its three main strands.

A small part of the tragic death a few weeks ago of Gareth Jones, co-author of 'Why should anyone be led by you?' is that 'Elites' was one of the last books to receive his fierce enthusiasm. He particularly relished the vocabulary of 'wizard' and 'muggle crust' which the book develops; 'muggle crust!' was the greeting he barked at me the first time we spoke on the phone. The rest of the forty minute conversation last autumn was friendly but scary, taking me straight back to my doctoral viva. Gareth knew and loved his sociology.

A detective story of sociological ideas is one of three strands which make up the book's narrative rope. Another is my observation from experience as an executive search professional, coach and leader myself of what it takes to survive and thrive at or near the top of organisations or professional fields. The third is 'ah ha!' moments (including screw-ups) from my personal and professional journey. I've prepared a 4-5 minute audio trailer, including an extract of the book, to explore each strand - starting with a vivid illustration of the dangers of working at or near the top. This, and the links which follow, will take you to the trailers on YouTube.

If we want to do things like dismantle glass ceilings (and I do), having the best understanding we can of why they exist is crucial. This is where the detective story of ideas comes in. Elites explains why meritocracies produce glass ceilings - they are closer to being a feature than a bug. Our detective story is about solving this riddle.

Amusingly, the answer I offer comes from sociological research into a very ordinary, small English working-class and lower middle-class town with no trace of an obvious elite in sight. That's only possible if what makes elites 'elite' is in fact very ordinary.

Today we know a lot about the harm which comes from misallocating all kinds of social 'currencies', for example land, financial capital, income, education, job opportunities, housing (and many other things). Sometimes the inequalities get worse not better, but our struggle is not just against ignorance but self-interest. The social currency which turns out to matter in Elites is individuality and respect: what it is to be human, and what we look up to and why. The two ideas are connected.

Los Alamos was a very ordinary small town in New Mexico. It changed the world because researchers went there to dismantle one of the building blocks of nature: the atom. If Winston Parva (the name the researchers gave to their English research site) can explain the magic of elites, it could be sociology's Los Alamos. You can go to a four minute audio trailer about the research on YouTube here.

Finally let's turn to personal experience. Who knows when or how we'll stop working. Even if we think we know, life is full of surprises. But most of us will come to know a feeling which arrives one day like an unexpected change in the temperature. You had been noticing birdsong but now you notice that your working life is three-quarters or four-fifths done. It's like reading a book and sensing from the thickness and feel of the pages a shortening of the distance to the end. The page you just turned looked as innocent as all the others, but it nudged something.

It's my privilege as a career coach to work with and learn from fascinating women and men at very different life stages. (The ones who arrive already knowing they're fascinating can be a bit less fascinating than the others, but that's life.) Among those who have experienced the feeling I've described, two contrasting groups come to mind.

Some, full of confidence when they possess a respected role, struggle to imagine that their inner journey is a story worth listening to. If they lose such a role they wonder why anyone would listen to them (a fair question, given they're not sure that they find their own life interesting).

Others come across more like talking box sets, full of action-filled episodes which they are happy to talk about, but less aware in terms of genre. For example all their 'best' episodes to date may have been dashingly heroic, long-sufferingly romantic or methodically clever. What they're wondering is whether they will get the chance to do the one last series which they feel is 'in them'.

Both groups help me contrast a different approach, which I'll call being open to your career proving to be a classy thriller. If that's what we're reading, we know (unlike individuals in the first group) that some of the thus-far dull details in the story will turn out to be highly significant. We also know (unlike individuals in the second group) that the meanings we had attached to some of the adrenaline highs to date will, in the hands of a gifted writer, turn out to have been misdirection. In classy thrillers the meaning of everything-thus-far is, in the dwindling space which remains before the end, turned upside down - but with precise attention to coherence and detail.

The main reason I know a career can be like this is that I've experienced it, starting with packing in my job as a headhunter following an encounter with some construction workers on the streets of Mumbai. The twists and turns continued through the writing of my fifth book. Go to the final audio trailer about my journey here.

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