A friend has written “The book of the corporate jungle: the ten commandments of survival” (sorry, only available in Portuguese) and she has just sent me a copy. This week’s newspaper “Expresso” features a very complete report on the forthcoming season of “Game of Thrones” that will go on air on the 15th of April for the absolute delight of its millions of fans – in which I am of course included, as well as my sons- and I cannot help thinking of the similarities between this famous TV series and the daily life of organizations.
Curiously, my friend’s book – a sharp, witty and realistic analysis that has alternatively had me laughing and bitterly recognizing familiar situations – reminded me of a book I began writing a few years ago, precisely about “life in the corporate jungle”. I went as far as to write a few chapters and then decided, for the sake of ethics, that I would not go on – at least not while I was one of the inhabitants of such an ecosystem. I would leave it for later on, and then share my experiences (and there are many of them and interesting too) mixed with my imagination, that – I am positive – will make for some saucy reading. That was when I decided to write a book about the life of a teenager in the late seventies and early eighties, also loosely based on my experiences.
I then continued with my life at the “corporate jungle” and have certainly increased my experience and the knowledge of many more stories – and my friends have often heard me compare life at work with my favourite TV series “Game of Thrones”; in the end it is very much like a court in the days of absolute monarchy, such as that of Henry VIII, one of the most fascinating historical figures, in my opinion.
In all these cases the game – or fight – is about power, and a clash of egos. Leaders and those who aspire to leadership fight for power – that will ultimately bring money as well – and in many cases their egos will not allow for any compromise, so they will send their soldiers to battle and many lives will be lost and countries destroyed. Heads will roll, if only figuratively in the corporate jungle – unlike in The TV series or in Henry VIII’s time – with employees losing positions and privileges or simply being invited to leave, many times without a valid reason; it is enough to have displeased the “Lion King”, the name my friend calls the top leader in her book with her sharp sense of humour.
Through my already long career I have worked for several companies, some less of a “jungle” and some so much more. But inevitably, in almost all of them I have encountered brilliant leaders, a few of them empathic and compassionate while a few more are egotistical and a bit too susceptible to flattery; I have met social climbers and shrewd managers who work their way to the top by systematically destroying colleagues who are much better than them but not as manipulative; torrid relationships between executives and their next in command that are supposed to be a total secret but which everyone talks about with sly smiles during coffee breaks; promotions based on personal relationships or social skills rather than professional capabilities; and hard, honest workers who never move forward because they are brave enough to say they do not agree, and are punished by that. I have been witness to “Red Weddings” (probably the most unexpected and shocking scene of “Game of Thrones”, when some of the main “good” characters are brutally murdered during a wedding feast) when it seems companies are turned inside out; to sudden “table turns” when rising stars suddenly become falling ones; most of all I have been speechless as I watch incompetence and laziness and treachery being rewarded while honesty, loyalty and hard work go by unnoticed.
Bu let’s not be pessimistic – I have seen great things too. I have seen innate leaders with that unique quality described by Sun Tzu in his eternal book “The art of war”: natural authority. Leaders who, like those described by this Chinese author, will be followed by their soldiers until death if necessary because the latter recognise their authority, that has nothing to do with titles or positions; brilliant minds who are not self-impressed and enjoy working as a team and enhancing their colleagues’ skills rather than their own. People who do not work to forward their egos, but because they honestly serve the company and have strong ethical values. In the end, it’s just like in “Game of Thrones” – you have the good, the bad, the ugly, the desperate, the magicians, the manipulators, the monsters and so on – and they may change. Who will not remember how hateful Jamie Lannister was in the first season, only to become considerably more human, even likeable, when his right hand is cruelly cut off by the leader of a brigands’ army? And what mother would not sympathise – if only for one second – with the devastated Cersei as she loses one child after the other? Not to mention how bad a person I felt when I rejoiced in the appalling death of one of the most horrendous characters ever, Ramsay Bolton…
My friend, who has led a successful career whilst keeping her strong principles and empathy, writes a realistic book and leaves us with relevant advice so as not to lose our way as we climb the corporate ladder. Her message is that it is possible, as well as desirable, to progress without sacrificing our individuality and self respect, while demanding respect from others. I totally agree with her. I have seen better organisations, and worse; but in a way it’s up to us to give our contribution and try to improve the ecosystem we are working in or, if we cannot change it and it is too much of a jungle for our taste, try to move to a better one. Even if that’s not always easy.
Still, while we are there, survival is key. And when we get home after a tough day at the office, feeling as if we cannot endure another single day there, we can always look forward to the 15th of April when we’ll sit down in front of the TV and feel our heart beat faster as we hear the unmistakable sound of the “Game of Thrones” soundtrack and wait for the first episode of the seventh and last season to begin. I can assure we’ll lose ourselves in the world of the Seven Kingdoms, so different and yet so similar to ours, and, if only for the span of that episode, forget all about our own corporate jungles. After all, even though flowers are blossoming in Portugal due to an early Spring, “Winter is coming” to our favourite fantasy world.