When I was a kid, I assumed that the adult world was a well-ordered place. Occasionally, I would hear my dad mutter that some important-looking person on the telly was a bloody fool but, for the most part, I thought that people in positions of authority knew what they were doing. To an extent, I carried some of these assumptions into the world of work.
Twenty years on, and with the experience of working in a couple of dozen organisations, I realise that many of those in positions of power are only half a step ahead of the game and some are not even that. Sure, the glass tower block is impressive, the suit is well cut, the office is huge and the staff are suitably deferential, but the man himself is, quite often, clueless. The company may have the public image of a well-oiled machine but spend a bit of time there lifting up a few stones and you’ll find chaos.
Once you screen out from the competition the vast majority who can’t be arsed to climb the greasy pole, you are left with people who, for the most part, seized a particular opportunity at a particular time then consolidated their power. They shone brightly once, due to a peculiar set of circumstances, but they have no idea how to do so again. Once enthroned, they spend the remainder of their careers using their position power to make sure no-one finds them out. Among the elaborate defences they construct you will often find a story about how they came to be so successful. Usually these myths attribute success to personal factors and any failures or setbacks, if they are admitted at all, are put down to external factors. In this way, leaders can assure us of their brilliance and most of us believe it, right up to the point when their empires come crashing down.
Malcolm Gladwell’s excellent book ‘Outliers’ shows that, while hard work and application play their part, major determinants of success are where you came from and when you were born. Much of it is about being in the right place at the right time. It is rare for leaders to admit this. The few that do are usually those who have reached an unassailable place in their chosen fields and no longer feel vulnerable.
Like Warren Buffett:
I get paid enormously, and it’s no great credit to me, I was just lucky at birth.
And Bill Gates:
Luck played an immense role. The timing wasn’t entirely luck but without great luck it couldn’t have happened.
But even now, after the cataclysmic collapse of the world banking system, people still cling stubbornly to the idea that it was just a few bad people who messed up, rather than acknowledging that all those people earning the big bucks collectively screwed up on a massive scale. The Masters of the Universe, it turned out, didn’t have a clue after all.
Some argue that it has to do with the way we are taught history. We are told that great men, and a few great women, have shaped the world. Their role is played up while the effects of the circumstances in which they found themselves is played down. We are therefore conditioned to believe that the people at the top continue to make and remake our world, and that they have the capability to do so.
Even someone as world-changing as Adolf Hitler was a product of the conditions in which he found himself. Sure, you must have some talent to go, in twenty years, from leading a group of seven disgruntled ex-servicemen to ruling most of Europe. But had young Adolf been born to an upper-middle class family in the Home Counties, he would probably have bullied his way up the hierarchy of a merchant bank, then been a rather bombastic golf-club chairman in his retirement. He would have lived and died without most of us ever hearing about him.
The great men and women may indeed have rare talents but, without the right circumstances, they would have remained unknown. Throughout history, thousands of people have set out to make their mark on the world. Most of them never did.
Which is why I don’t believe in conspiracy theories. People just aren’t that good. That’s not to say I don’t believe that people conspire, connive and collude; they clearly do. But the sophisticated long-term plots, where groups of illuminati steer events and cover their tracks with elaborate subterfuge, are simply beyond the capability of human beings.
The attraction of conspiracy theories is twofold. Firstly, they make people feel clever – ‘I know about this stuff and you don’t’. Secondly, they make the world seem like an ordered place. It is no coincidence that conspiracy theories are most prevalent among political and religious extremists. Extremist groups provide both the sense of being part of an elite club and the certainty that many people crave. It is more comforting to believe that someone is in control of events, even if that someone is a malevolent force, than the alternative – that the world is chaotic and humans have only limited control over the events that shape their lives.
It might be reassuring to think that someone is running the world; still more so if you are one of the few who knows what’s going on and has sussed them out. It is, though, little more than a comfort blanket. A plot to flood Britain with immigrants, a great global warming conspiracy and the existence of a New World Order elite might provide simple explanations for complex events but there is not a shred of evidence behind any of them.
No-one is in control of the world. The most governments can hope for is to control some parts of it for some of the time. The same is true for leaders of large organisations. Kings, presidents, prime ministers and chief executives spend much of their time trying to make sense of what is going around them while trying to reassure people that they are in control. Running a conspiracy would be way beyond them.
Conspiracy theories are rather like impossible structures; they entertain us and feed our imaginations but they would be impossible to construct and maintain in real-life. The world is a messy and chaotic place. It’s fun to imagine a group of people manipulating events behind the scenes but the truth is that no-one, anywhere in the world, is that good.