Sunday, December 31, 2006

Gerald R. Ford and the perpetuation of the status quo

Somehow ended up watching the Gerald Ford funeral procession yesterday, and was struck by a comment made by one of the folks. Don't even know who said it, but they explained that when Ford was looking to hire, promote or put someone in a position of trust he looked to two things: had they served in the military? And had they played team sports in college?

If one, or preferably both, of these criteria were met he was far more likely to place his trust in that person. Why? because those activities proved a person could work well in teams and was motivated and hard-working.

This anecdote was told as evidence of what a fine, upstanding rock of a guy Ford was. All it really does though is illustrate quite ably why women and minorities have trouble breaking into the ranks of the halls of power.

Now, I could go on at length about how this of course would have skewed Ford's appointments and hires to white males, but the broader point is that we all tend to seek those to whom we can relate, those with whom we share commonality, those whose experiences are relatable to our own.

And in a way we do this to validate ourselves as much as them!

For example: When I find out people have some sort of creative pursuit in their background I associate that with the likelihood that their minds are more open, that they may be more adaptable, that they'll be able to think outside the box more readily, that they are more balanced, and therefore more flexible to changing external circumstances.

I believe that because that is part of my background and part of what makes me the kind of person and the kind of worker than I am today.

Are there other ways to demonstrate creativity, flexibility etc.? I'm sure there are, but none that are as easily digested for me as knowing that someone has an artistic or creative side.

Are there other ways of exhibiting teamwork and motivation than in college team sports? Sure. (I'd say rehearsing and producing a live theatre work requires a tremendous reliance on teamwork and hard work, for instance.) But those other activities were not personally known to Gerald Ford. He wasn't going to grok that such different pursuits might indeed result in exactly the kind of attributes he was seeking in a hire.

Long ramblings cut short: the status quo used to be nearly 100% white males in power in this business, in politics, in academia etc. They, in effect, controlled who would be the next generation of those in power. Because of both conscious and unconscious reactions to people and their backgrounds, it is not surprising that we got more of the same. Gerald Ford was, by all accounts, a decent and fair-minded guy. But according to this well-meaning commenter, he was also discriminatory in his hiring practices.

Even more disturbing than those hiring practices 30 years ago, is the fact that those practices were basically being lauded today! A small clue as to why we haven't really come that long a way baby...yet.

My reaction was the same as yours ( a non-sports, non-military, non-male, too).

And yet...I find that most people make hiring decisions based on an affinity for the other person that, no matter how they externally justify it, boils down to "I like that person because they are just like me."

(I worked for years as a technical and executive search recruiter, and I banged my head against this every day.)

The organizations (business and non-business) that succeed are those those who welcome, encourage and nurture contributions from the best and brightest in the field.

And the Gerald Fords of the world will instead perpetuate their own limitations.

No wonder that all of Bush's political appointees are wastrel frat boys!
Oh Shaula, snap!

I'm glad I wasn't the only one who had this reaction.

And I agree that it happens in myriad ways, not just sports and military fetishes!
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