If you are a toxin handler, or if your organization needs one (and every organization needs several), Frost has some excellent advice for you. As a toxin handler, he names your role and your pain and follows up with sound counsel on how to conduct your practice, some of it based on real toxin handlers in the physical world. Thus he says that toxin handlers should never work alone, and newcomers should be paired with more experienced partners; toxin handlers should be protected from harm by flexible schedules and deadlines that recognize their special role and the double duty they are doing; lastly, toxin handlers need regular breaks to recover from the rigors of their activities. Frost also emphasizes the necessity for effective toxin handlers, like top performers in any field, to continually build their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual capacities.
The virtue of this book is that it highlights and analyzes an endemic organizational problem and formalizes the task of addressing it. However, the emphasis on symptomatic relief rather than on fundamental prevention and cure means that it is unlikely that we will see the job of “Chief Toxin Handler” appearing in organizations anytime soon.
Power and the American Creed
The respected political scientist Samuel Huntington has suggested that opposition to power and suspicion of government as the most dangerous embodiment of power are the central themes of American political thought. The American creed, with its absolute moral values of universalism, democracy, egalitarianism, and individualism, results in regular outbursts of what he calls creedal passion, when institutions and their officials are held to puritanical standards that they cannot possibly meet. Huntington suggests that because power is now seen as corporate rather than governmental, the next period of this passion could be directed against the corporate sector.
If Huntington is correct, the coming battle will make everything that has gone before look like mere skirmishes. No doubt there will be a good deal of sound and fury, but perhaps the resulting debate will help us clarify the role of managerial power in organizations and make it easier for us to talk about it plainly and openly, alerting us to the occasions when its use is being concealed.
Power is needed in organizations at all times, but when the going gets really tough, there will always be the temptation for managers to use raw power to achieve at least part of their objective — personal reward — while cloaking its use with high-flown intellectual alibis. We have become all too familiar with this process in the aftermath of the collapse of firms like Enron and WorldCom, where elaborate rationalizations, together with the use of raw power, were used to intimidate critics and hide wrongdoing.
George Orwell would have understood this linguistic cover-up process completely: “A mass of … words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting ink.” If management writers can help us strip away this veil of language that masks power, it will be progress indeed.
David K. Hurst (firstname.lastname@example.org), a regular contributor to strategy+business, is the author of Learning from the Links: Mastering Management Using Lessons from Golf (Free Press, 2002). A speaker and writer on management, Mr. Hurst also wrote Crisis & Renewal: Meeting the Challenge of Organizational Change (Harvard Business School Press, 1995) and was a visiting scholar/practitioner at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., in 1998–99. His writing has appeared in Harvard Business Review, the Financial Times, and other leading business publications.