The corporation as simulacrum

In addition to the Self, we have explored the world at large, and a country as candidates for becoming a replica rather than the real thing. Here I would like to add the corporation as another candidate. My posts on the world and Italy are largely academic analyses without much remedy. The Self, and the corporation, are much more immediate and therefore more malleable. Our own Self, and our workplace, the two most permeating components in our daily and personal lives, are both vulnerable to distortion and conversion toward simulacra. In that they are immediate and close, we can be consequential in affecting their “realness” or lack of same.

A corporation begins as a dream, becomes a reality when made operative. The simulacrum lurks in both the origins and the late evolution of companies. Let’s explore the origins first. It is a familiar story of “start-ups”, that the original founder and CEO succeeds for a while, but as the company prospers and continues, the CEO and founder often becomes ineffective and investors grow restive. If the ship isn’t righted, he or she is often replaced with the usual acrimony. I suggest here that such a scenario is a result of the founder being unable to differentiate between his/her dream, and the company that it has now become. The founder is dysfunctional because he is still administering to his original dream company rather than to the one into which it has evolved. His company has become a reality which includes his employees, his board, and his investors. He lingers in “the dream”; he administers to the simulacrum. His dream and his currently evolved company both look the same to him. One is real; one is folly. The founder may be psychologically unable to unwind the simulacrum in his mind. It is simply too much a part of him. The founder may be simply too invested to let go. The founder and the simulacrum are one. In this case, being replaced is the only remedy. The conversion from one to the other may be more time-consuming than the corporation can afford.

The other danger of the simulacrum comes in the more mature years of a corporation. This is when the CEO and Boards begin to have “visions” of the company’s future. They begin to talk in “exec talk”, similar to “politico talk”. This is the phase of advertising, word-smithing, rhetoric, self-serving, media, imagery, and perhaps the most dangerous…………the dreaded Mission Statement!

Beware the Mission Statement. These are exercises where a company generally takes a few days off, and attempts, in conjunction with executives, employees and staff, to hammer out a few pages of rhetoric that seeks to encapsulate and inspire the nature and goals of the company. These generally begin as feel-good assemblies that hope to end with new found energies and direction. All noble goals. If that happens, great! My experience is that it does not always. The process can reveal recriminations and dissatisfactions among the employees. Bad feelings can ensue and linger. But more to the point here, the final “inscribed in stone” Mission Statement is often a pie-in-the-sky piece of inspiring prose that may or may not be of practical value. More dangerous, is the possibility that this is the first phase of the creation of the simulacrum of the company, and the next phase of management’s direction to administer the Mission Statement, i.e, the Simulacrum. Public interaction, advertising and media presentations, shareholder meetings, financial reports all become servants to the mission statement. The real, operative company becomes ever more elusive. Changing the “real” company is hard. The simulacrum is more malleable and thus more seductive. If management falls in love with the mission statement they are doomed to the simulacrum. Committee and board meetings are then used to enhance the simulacrum and imbed the delusions.

A mission statement for the line employee may be inspirational and therefore productive. The role of the CEO, upper management and the Board is to stay real. The CFO is your friend. Don’t displace him. He is the voice of reality. CEO’s and Boards can get caught up in the high rhetoric of a “mission”. I think back on the events at Jet Blue. At a time when it was the darling of the newer airlines, and their vision had nothing but laurels hanging on it, the giant snowstorm hit them. And reality bit. Planes and passengers were stranded on tarmacs for hours and hours and hours. The CEO suddenly had to administer to an aspect of the company that didn’t fit neatly into a mission statement vision. i.e, a disaster. The reality of snow-bound planes everywhere, and what to do, was apparently not in the manual. I bet it is now.

After understanding the trap of the simulacrum, the CEO will have new tools, a new paradigm through which he or she can grasp the real company, administer the real company and not the fatally flawed simulacrum, the image, the replica, the one created by one’s own media blitz. This is a delicate but crucial difference. All things conspire to obscure reality. After the mission statement, the company’s own media is probably the ongoing culprit. We think media, then live media. You must understand the simulacrum. You will never think or administer the same, once you understand the simulacrum in your midst. Your company and its simulacrum look the same. The simulacrum is more seductive because it is easier to mold. Reality is messy, more resistant. Don’t go the easy route. This is a daily dilemma. But the difference is crucial.



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