In Free Agent Nation, Daniel Pink suggests watching two films to get an idea of how the world of work has changed since the middle of the twentieth century.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956) is about a public relations executive, the Organization Man of the 1950s.
Jerry Maguire (1996) is the story of a West Coast sports agent who navigates today’s freewheeling entrepreneurial culture.
But what struck me on the snowy afternoon that I watched these movies back to back was not so much how the culture of work has changed, but how much it has remained the same.
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the fine art of covering one’s behind with doubletalk better articulated!
When gray-flannel-suited Tom Rath, a World War II veteran, is hired by a New York corporation, he very quickly becomes very adept at office politics.
One of his first assignments is to give his opinion of a “dreadful” speech written by the CEO of his company. His wife thinks he should just say what he thinks, but he explains that corporate life is “a tricky business.”
One thing I’ve learned already is that you have to protect yourself in the clinches. The thing to do is to feel your way along.
When they call you in to give a report like this you begin with a lot of highly qualified contradictory statements and watch your man’s face to see which one pleases him. For instance you can begin by saying “There are some wonderful things in this speech,” and then you pause for second or two. If that seems to make him happy then you go on, “I have only a few minor alterations to suggest.” But if he looks a little startled on the word wonderful you switch and say but on the whole I don’t think it comes off.
If you’ve been smart enough about it you can wind up telling him exactly what he wants to hear.
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard the fine art of covering one’s behind with doubletalk better articulated! How can it possibly be productive for a senior executive to have his own thinking echoed back at him? And how can abandoning his own self-respect ever serve an employee well in the long run?
His wife astutely calls all of this “mass nonsense” to which Tom gravely counters, “When a job’s all you’ve got, you have to play it the way everyone else does.”
Which is also the way that Jerry Maguire plays it. As the “master of the house call,” he knows just how to court favor with his roster of star athlete clients—until he is forced out of the agency he helped to build and loses all but one of them to his former protege who becomes his arch rival.
Caught between the corporate game and their own value systems, both Jerry Maguire and Tom Rath descend into dejection, and it is this that ultimately makes their stories hopeful and satisfying.
Both men ultimately succeed because they are able to break free of the imprisoning grip of self-protection and allow themselves to be challenged by people who care about them—Tom by admitting to his wife he has a son he has never seen from an affair he had during the war, and Jerry by allowing his one remaining client to confront him over his emotional distance from the single mother he married so he wouldn’t be alone.
Both men open up to their own vulnerability and in doing so become courageous in claiming what is really important to them in their professional and personal lives.
For Jerry, this happens when he finally has the kind of big win he used to have before he lost his touch, but realizes that he no longer has the woman who believed in him when he had nothing to share with her.
For Tom, being truthful about his illegitimate son at the risk of losing his wife opens the way to his being honest with the man he works for, not only about the speech, but also about his need to make his family a higher priority than his work.
Ultimately, because these two men are able to face their internal struggles head on, they become authentic leaders of their own lives (especially the messy parts) and more successful as human beings than they ever would have been as yes men.