As we launch into 2003, we cannot resist a final wistful look back on the past 12 months. It was an extraordinary year for the corporate world, a year in which juicy corporate scandals seemed to be lined up like so many jets on the runway at LaGuardia on a Friday afternoon. Just when we thought we had heard of acts of greed and stupidity at their most extreme, some overachieving senior executive would come along to set a new standard for larceny.
Embezzlement was once a quaint crime: A disgruntled mid-level executive would siphon off $50,000 or so as he dreamed of retirement on the beach of some tropical paradise. But the year 2002 saw a phalanx of executives whose greed knew no bounds. And blessing these acts of organizational turpitude were those who sat on corporate boards of directors and their confidently-calculating cohorts in the accounting profession.
How the mighty have fallen. Just a few years ago, CEOs rivaled movie stars and professional athletes for celebrity power. We have gone from focusing on the CEO as master of the universe to the CEO as crook. What lies ahead? Judging by the enormous popularity of Scott Adams’ most recent book, Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel, our focus now is likely to be on the CEO and other top executives as weasel.
Adams created the Dilbert cartoon strip in the early 1990s following a number of years working in stultifying jobs for large companies in California. The strip focuses on the travails of Dilbert, an engineer sentenced to life in a carrel in an enormous corporation. The ability of Dilbert’s manager to make senseless decisions appears limitless.
The success of the comic strip, which appears in more than 2,000 daily newspapers in 65 countries, speaks of a troubling level of cynicism in the corporate world. Talking about the boss behind his back, complaining that he is a cabbage head, and expressing amazement about how he had advanced so far with so few obvious skills is nothing new. But where such comments were once whispers, now they seem to have taken on the volume of fans at a wrestling match.
Adams comes across as the cynic-in-chief in this best-selling book, rarely relying on subtlety, sophistication, creativity or originality. He simply picks up his pen, which must be shaped like a tire-iron, and attacks: “A retarded chimpanzee can drink a case of beer and still perform most management functions … If you’re a weasel manager, you hope your company doesn’t improve on your first day of work when all you’ve done so far is eat a doughnut and take a spectacular three-minute whiz in the executive washroom to mark your territory.”
In addition, Adams’ newest book relies heavily on anecdotes passed along to him by his legions of devoted fans. While there will never be a dearth of incredibly inane behavior on the part of managers on the fast track, one cannot help but wonder whether many, if not most, of the stories sent to Adams have been juiced up more than a bit. Carrels in office complexes can often resemble particle accelerators as rumors and stories race through an organization, picking up both speed and an increasing tone of outrageousness before they are shot off to the outside world.
There is no question that the world is filled with weasels, but the corporate world has no monopoly on them. Still, the sheer boldness of “weaselness” that Adams writes about can be awe-inspiring. For example, how can we not marvel at the book publisher who insists that his company look into using an inferior type of glue in its binding process to assure that their books will fall apart within a year, forcing buyers to replace their old copies?
What Adams appears to have done in Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel is mused randomly about the business world after dashing off his week’s quota of comic strips. These strips are used liberally to try to emphasize his point, but the connection often seems wobbly. Adams needs a strong writer to work with him, and he needs a much more diligent editor. The book wanders all over the terrain.
It is not so much what Adams has to say through his strips and this book, it is the enormous popularity of his creation that seems to be the more important and troubling message. It is clear that many businesses have lost their way and are marked by environments that can be petty, narrow-minded and filled with politics. While Adams shines a bright light on such behavior, he offers nothing constructive to companies that could help them ferret out corporate weasels with more diligence.
Indeed, Adams himself seems to have more than a little of the weasel in him. In his previous book, The Dilbert Principle, he wrote: “These days it seems like any idiot with a laptop computer can churn out a business book and make a few bucks. That’s certainly what I am hoping.” After reading The Way of the Weasel, one can’t help but think that Adams has indeed met his goal, which then begs the question: Just who is the weasel?