x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Better to act like Flash Harry than run risk of Prussian blues

Type A: mentally dull and physically lazy.; Type B: mentally bright and physically energetic; Type C: mentally dull and physically energetic; and Type D: mentally bright and physically lazy. Which of these do you think would be most useful?

It's the beginning of a new year and you're keen to work incredibly hard to impress your superiors.

You show up early, work diligently and plough through lots of paperwork until late at night. Good idea?

No. You have not been reading your Helmuth Karl Bernhard Graf von Moltke, the Prussian army's chief of staff for 30 years in the mid-19th century. He transformed his command by insisting that the most important quality in his officers was that essential but often overlooked trait: idleness.

He split them into four groups depending on their mental and physical characteristics - Type A: mentally dull and physically lazy; Type B: mentally bright and physically energetic; Type C: mentally dull and physically energetic; and Type D: mentally bright and physically lazy.

Which of these do you think would be most useful? I looked around the newsroom at my fellow workers. How should I categorise them? I wanted to ask the opinion of the business editor but was told that he had popped in early, assigned a number of tasks, and had gone for an urgent meeting on a nearby golf course. Clearly a Type D.

Whoever hired him was either very bright or Gen von Moltke, for this was just the type of fellow who he thought should be running the Prussian army. Type A were clearly not up to snuff. They were given simple, repetitive tasks. It was said if you gave them simple, repetitive tasks they might come up with a good idea one day but you shouldn't bank on it. On a newspaper, they would probably have been given something menial on the arts desk.

Type B, mentally bright and physically energetic, were deemed to be too obsessed with micro-management. They would make good human resources people perhaps, or fast-food delivery men. They would know the shortest way to get from A to B so that your vindaloo arrived piping hot.

Type C officers, mentally dull but physically energetic, were considered the most dangerous. Hard to know where they would work on a paper: perhaps as senior editors. Gen von Moltke considered them best at making sure orders were carried out and taking painstaking care about details.

Which brings us to Type D. The general thought they made the ideal officer material. Smart and lazy means that you find the easiest way to do something. As Walter Chrysler, the builder of the eponymous motor cars and the most gorgeous tower in New York once remarked: "Whenever there is a hard job to be done I assign it to a lazy man; he is sure to find an easy way of doing it."

Von Moltke has been revived and studied by management consultants, who are now touring the world flogging his absurd theories. Doubtless there are companies following this counsel ruthlessly; it's probably happening in this office, if it hasn't already. It may be trendy, but it's absurd.

Do these fellows never read history? The Prussian army under Von Moltke's aegis may have flogged the French mercilessly in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, but this does not make them an efficient fighting force. No wonder the First World War got bogged down in four years of trench warfare. All the Type Ds were driving on the Type Bs and Cs, while getting the Type As to bring them sauerkraut and chilled mugs of beer in their safe billets.

The Type Ds probably thought they could keep this wheeze going indefinitely, and they probably could have done if it weren't for the US brains and might that came bursting in with tanks, troops and parachutes and brought Detroit-built muscle to bear.

In my book, there's an altogether better model for office life. Step forward Sir Harry Paget Flashman, VC, KCB, KCIE.

He bestrode the 19th century like a colossus, playing a hand in many of the major military engagements of the period, in India, the Crimea, helped answer the Schleswig-Holstein Question, rode in the Charge of the Light Brigade and even fought alongside Gen Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

After an altogether unsatisfactory scholastic career at Rugby School, then one of the England's leading public schools, he joined the British army.

He had few accomplishments: brilliant at languages; rode beautifully; and was rather partial to the fairer sex.

But unlike the brave Von Moltke, Flashman was a fearful coward. Instead of action, he preferred inaction. He would flee from the thought of danger, sometimes dissolving in a blue funk. Fortunately, he was tall, well-built and handsome. To cap it all, whenever he was frightened, his face turned red rather than white, so everybody thought he was excited, keen as a hero.

When faced with a management decision, people should not emulate Von Moltke but Harry Flashman. Flashy was always keen to avoid any activity, although he was always swift to take the credit.

It's easy to imagine Von Moltke striding through the Goldman Sachs trading floor, ordering his Type Ds to buy more sub-prime debt and them passing that order down the line. Flashman would never have meddled with credit default swaps. He would have been too busy elsewhere, resplendent in his cherry pickers.

 

rwright@thenational.ae