The Diminishers

Before he resigned in the summer of 2009, Steven Rattner was Obama’s Car Czar (officially the leader of the Presidential Task Force on the Auto Industry) nominally in charge of the bailout of the automobile industry. Recently the Wall Street Journal published excerpts from Rattner’s new book Overhaul: An Insider’s Account of the Obama Administration’s Emergency Rescue of the Auto Industry.

In the excerpt, Rattner conveys a sense of gravitas as he relates stories of the endless meetings and the hard work that he and other administration officials put in on the automobile bailout.  Treasury Secretary Geithner and Larry Summers, Director of the White House National Economic Council, are large figures in his narrative. Rattner is writing to an audience that shares his view of the world: Washington insiders are powerful people who are smarter than everyone else, who work harder than everybody else, and by dint of their superiority, should plan the economy for us. For anybody else who doesn’t share that worldview, the Wall Street Journal excerpt serves as a reminder of how far America has gotten off-track.

Consider Rattner’s description of Summers. Rattner writes:

I was well aware of his reputation for bumptiousness . But working for him turned out to be stimulating, enjoyable and harmonious. Like me—with more justification in his case—Larry didn’t suffer fools. Titles and résumés meant little to him; he listened to what was said and decided whether the speaker seemed worthy of attention…

When he returned from a meeting in the West Wing, fuming about stupid ideas that had been put forward, Marne could calm him. Larry visibly worked hard to control himself. At one meeting I attended, a junior colleague in the bleachers (the couch on the other side of his office) offered an unsolicited comment. “That’s one of the silliest…” Larry began, but then caught himself and said, half under his breath, “That’s the old Larry. The new Larry says, ‘Have you thought about it this way?’ ”

Once Diana Farrell, one of Larry’s deputies, began to offer an opinion, but before she passed the midpoint of expressing her thought, Larry interrupted to say (not harshly), “I’ve already considered that idea and rejected it…”

Larry was an economist, however, not a businessman. Occasionally I thought he didn’t have the best perspective on financial markets or business. I wasn’t sure that he wanted to be told bluntly that he was wrong, especially by a subordinate…

And Rattner’s conclusion about Summers? He writes: “Our discussions were the high point of my Washington experience; I would leave convinced that there could be no happier future circumstance than the chance to work for him again.”

Rattner seems to idolize Summers. We can imagine that Rattner was led to believe by Summers that he, Rattner, was one of the special bright ones. Bumptiousness means crudely assertive; and by many accounts, Rattner’s description of Summers is dead on. Summers thinks he is smarter than everyone else.

In their excellent new book Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter Liz Wiseman and Greg McKeown observe how those leaders who think they are smarter than everyone else can actually diminish the intelligence of others. They call such people diminishers. They write:

Some leaders seem to drain intelligence and capability out of the people around them. Their focus on their own intelligence and their resolve to be the smartest person in the room had a diminishing effect on everyone else. For them to look smart, other people had end up looking down. We’ve all worked with these black holes. They create a vortex that sucks energy out of everyone and everything around them. When they walk into a room, the shared IQ drops and the length of the meeting doubles. In countless settings, these leaders were idea killers and energy destroyers…

The Diminisher’s view of intelligence is based on your elitism and scarcity. Diminishes appear to believe that really intelligent people are a rare breed and I am one of the few really smart people. They then conclude, other people will never figure out things without me.

Most of us understand well the dynamics of the diminisher. We have been both victim and victimizer as we have worked for diminishers and have played the part of a diminisher. Perhaps we are more of a diminisher in private with our spouse and children. Perhaps in public we have trained ourselves to appear more receptive to others, while not really listening to what someone else is saying. If so, no matter how polished our behavior is, we are fooling no one.

For many of us, age and the demands of our career begin to bring wisdom. The follies of our youthful arrogance fade as life and reflection teaches us that it is impossible for any of us to have but a fraction of the available knowledge that could be brought to bear on a problem. We learn that if not for the efforts of others, we would live in abject poverty.

But reflection often doesn’t come easy to those in academia or government. Privileges and protections in both fields of endeavor encourage an individual to believe that he or she is special. The diminisher can become a permanent role for such an individual.

To be sure, diminishers are prevalent in corporations too. But, they tend to be selected against in corporations. Why? A diminisher leaves important organizational intelligence on the table and, in so doing, diminishes the viability and profitability of his or her organization. There is no such profitability constraint in government or academia where intellectual arrogance is all too prevalent.

When we play the part of a diminisher, we assume that for anything to get done, everything has to be funneled through us. We assume control and micromanage everything.

Diminishers believe in a zero-sum game. Their status is enhanced as others look bad. In the world of the diminisher, there is no room for the genius inherent in each individual to shine.

Diminishers may think they are special, they may think they are the life of the party, but most would disagree. Working for Summers may have been a happy circumstance for Rattner, but most would feel otherwise. For most of us, having our ideas shot down through instant analysis by an arrogant person is not fun. Most Americans don’t believe that Summers’ self-proclaimed wisdom means he has any special insight into the car industry. The average citizen does not believe that Summers should be able to confiscate their earnings from their productive endeavors and redirect their earnings in a way that Summers sees fit.

Diminishers and the diminisher that lurks in each of us are inimical to a free society. Diminishers don’t trust others to make decisions, believing they should plan for the rest of us.  As we each decide to stop being a diminisher, we automatically withdraw our permission for all the Larry Summers of the world to intellectually bully and exercise power over us.

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2 Responses to The Diminishers

  1. Sreve P says:

    Barry,
    I wonder whether diminishers are only able to function in the manner they do so long as they have a sufficient supply of victims willing to participate in the relationship. I’m reminded in a way of Donald Trump and his Apprentice contestants. One can be “ambitious” yet lacking in self-esteem. Some people will suffer any degradation just to associate themselves with the wealthy and powerful, perhaps in hopes that “something” will rub-off on them. Rather sad to observe.

  2. Steve,

    Exactly! When we withdraw our permission the diminisher disappears.

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