If You'll Do Anything for an "A," You'll Do Anything for Your Boss, Too

Our kids today are already surrounded by forces that encourage them to be compliant. The very last thing they need is parents who've taught them to be good soldiers.
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Amy Chua's book on parenting, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, has every parent wound up. Chua argues that American parents are too soft, letting their kids go on play dates, sleepovers and do crafts. By contrast, Chu's daughters are punished for coming second in a math class, sentenced to 2,000 problems a night until they come first again. The straight As the girls eventually get are held aloft as some kind of triumph.

Chu has, of course, played straight into the two dominant sources of American paranoia: parenting and xenophobia. Everyone's worried they're failing their kids and/or failing the nation when they admit something besides academic work into their children's lives.

Many people have taken issue with this book, not least the marvelous David Brooks who points out that, actually, the "hard" stuff when you're growing up isn't math, it's relationships. And he quite rightly argues that emotional intelligence is more critical, challenging and creative than calculations.

I agree with Brooks, having seen smart little calculating machines fail dismally once they get into any kind of meaningful work. But this isn't only because they lack emotional intelligence. It's because their first instinct is to do as they're told. Far too many college graduates emerge after 15-18 years of institutionalized education, entirely robbed of the ability to think. What they have learned, par excellence, is to be submissive and compliant. They are excellent at following orders. This is not a behavior with a glorious historic legacy.

Justin Paperny knows what I'm talking about. He was a fine student, star athlete and all round good guy. He always did what he was told, even when his boss told him to commit fraud.

"Jail is full of pleasers," Paperny told me. "The other day I was doing a talk at the University of Southern California and I asked: "How many of you are pleasers?" Three-quarters of the hands go up. And I said to them, "How you are today is how you will be at work. If you will do anything for an A, you will do anything for your boss."

Now out of jail, Paperny spends his days at business schools, teaching his cautionary tale, eager that other enthusiastic students should not follow in his footsteps. He's had to think long and hard about what he did and why and it's left him convinced that the obedience and conformity he learned so well at school left him exposed and vulnerable when he went to work.

Obedience and conformity present profound risks to businesses. Every business catastrophe, from Enron to Arthur Andersen to Lehmann Brothers and BP, is characterized by large numbers of good people who did as they were told. Even (or especially) the US military knows that the most dangerous thing on earth is unthinking obedience.

Our kids today are already surrounded by forces that encourage them to be compliant: huge student debts, poor job prospects, absurd mortgages all make it seem riskier than ever to step out of line. The very last thing they need is parents who've taught them to be good soldiers. The world would be in a very different place today if a few more such kids had had the nerve to say: You know, these sub-primes, I know they're what you want me to sell - but they just don't make sense to me.

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