Empowering Incompetents

I hate reality TV shows.

So I don’t know why I’m following the umpteenth season of American Idol.

We meet really nice people—who are seriously disconnected. Warped. Out to lunch. They cannot integrate their Big Belief with the Fact of Reality.

One form of disconnect is the diamond in the rough, the undiscovered talent. Undiscovered, most of all, to oneself. This is the premise of the show: that somewhere a gem toils mightily, unappreciated—until (s)he gets a Break. It’s the old American Dream, the meritocracy. Social mobility may be way down in this country, but it lives on in American Idol!

This year, she was hiding in Memphis. She’s a backup singer—the perfect metaphor. And—she has a marvelous voice.

Can she move to the front of the stage? Claim the spotlight? The judges rushed her on to Hollywood, because—that’s what the show is about. Major raw, hard-working talent that doesn’t yet believe in itself, but that will be rewarded.

But—we all know the dream by heart now. In fact, we know it too well. By far the more common disconnect is people who do believe in themselves—but have no talent. Their biggest belief is that Belief Itself is enough.

Millions of poor fools have made a basic error of logic: mistaking a necessary condition for a sufficient one. They try out for Idol, believing that belief is enough. Try jumping off a cliff, believing you’ll defy the laws of gravity. The splat is different, but the odds about the same.

One contestant, asked why he believed his (miserable) performance rated a “yes,” replied, “because I love it [the song].” If I believe, it will happen.

It’s the same in business. Empowerment is great—to unleash organizational talent. But empowering incompetents is absurd—an attempt to defy reality. (The same can be said of other management panaceas-which-aren’t; somewhere, somebody has to have business-relevant excellence and expertise for them to work).

The “just believe” message is ubiquitous: in self-help books, sports (“I guess the other guys wanted it more than we did”), movies ("if you build it, they will come"), fuzzy-think gurus ("start believing and acting like you’re already a millionaire, and you will get there!").

Axed Idol contestants blame the judges, anyone but themselves. The reality-distortion field is huge.

So pick your disconnect: belief unhinged from reality, or hard-working talent that doesn’t believe in itself.

American Idol claims to choose sides. It cruelly mocks those no-talents who have belief only, and crowns those who have been graced with talent and have worked to hone it. It’s the old American Dream—the meritocracy.

But the show suborns as well. The judges ask, "Do you believe you can win?" knowing the Pavlovian response will be, "oh yeah, I believe!" They (and we) are set up to believe it’s a contest of wills. Until Simon et al lower the boom, and the poor schlub is yanked back to reality—it’s still a talent show. "Oops, sorry about that, just kidding."

The winners play their roles in the farce too. They don’t say, "well, dude, I’m simply the best singer in the country, that’s all it comes down to!" No, we want our winners to play the Game; " it’s like my momma always told me, you just gotta believe in yourself…"  (See also Donald Trump in today’s Guy Kawasaki blog).

This lets us, the viewers, have our cake and eat it too. “Yeah, that’s me, my boss doesn’t recognize my talent either!” The lesson we draw is not practice, practice, practice, but—believe in yourself! It’s the New American Dream, the Cinderella story. The problem is not talent or hard work, it’s that damned evil stepmother!

And so, one Dream feeds the other—"he won because he wanted it"—and so the show creates next year’s contestants. What a business model.

Which disconnect error does your firm encourage? Bloodless competence with no soul or enthusiasm? Or empowering incompetents?

Which disconnect do you suffer from?

Or—let’s dare to go positive here—have you actually integrated them? Please do tell how.