Is The Company Man Really A Goner?


By Paul Leinberger and Bruce Tucker

HarperCollins -- 454pp -- $24.95

No phrase better captured the post-World War II business professional than The Organization Man--the title of a 1956 book by William H. Whyte Jr.

The Organization Man was a loyal, hard-working, white male who had given himself over entirely to his company. He avoided risk, wasn't terribly creative, and was quicker to take orders than to question authority. Whyte's controversial best-seller, along with C. Wright Mills's White Collar (1951) and Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), helped shape an enduring stereotype of 1950s businessmen.

Paul Leinberger, a Palo Alto (Calif.) management consultant, knows that image well. He is the son of one of the men Whyte studied and the co-author of a new book that explores what became of the Organization Men and their families. With cooperation from Whyte, who turned over his notebooks, Leinberger and writer Bruce Tucker found and interviewed 175 of Whyte's original subjects. They then sought out the sons and daughters of these men, to compare the two generations' views of their careers.

What a great idea! In another 20 years, the baby-boomers will dominate the ranks of American chief executives. What makes them tick and how growing up as children of Organization Men shaped some of them are subjects worthy of extensive examination.

But The New Individualists is a disappointment. This undisciplined book sorely needed an aggressive editor. At times, the text descends into sociobabble: "The notion of artificial persons sounds repugnant, robotic and conformist. But consider how the ideology of authenticity permits a far more thorough domination of individuals than does the frank acknowledgement of artificiality." The authors cite, quote, and comment on virtually every important demographic, sociological, or psychological study of the past half-century. And in defining the New Individualists, they often seem to be overreaching.

Yet parts of the book are fascinating--especially the well-drawn portraits of two families, the Myerses and the Harrisons. Ray Myers, 71, is former general counsel of Continental Illinois National Bank & Trust Co. Dave Harrison, 73, was an executive at General Motors Corp. Both were highly successful, working for decades in one organization. Says Harrison's wife, Helen: "We had always done what General Motors told us to do." That included moving a dozen times in 38 years with the company.The children of both families are pursuing diverse careers. Of the Myerses' three sons, for example, one is a Mellon Bank vice-president, another worked nearly 10 years for Memorex Corp. before starting his own Silicon Valley software venture, and a third is a carpenter in Colorado. This range of vocations doesn't seem remarkable. What makes the portraits satisfying are the candid reflections of parents and children on their personal and professional lives.

Unfortunately, the authors have tried too hard to formulate a theory from the diversity they see in the next generation. Their thesis--that the Organization Man has given way to the New Individualist--isn't very persuasive. In 1986, in fact, Whyte published a critique of their early findings. "The United States continues to be dominated by large organizations, and they are run much as they were before," he wrote. "The people who staff them are pretty much the same as those who did before."

The evidence is on Whyte's side. Each year, most newly minted MBAs seek jobs with large, brand-name corporations. In city bars, some young people now call each other not by their names but by the names of the companies they work for. ("Hey, Merrill," shouts one Wall Streeter to another.)

Of course, there have been changes in the management profession since the `50s--the most obvious being the emergence of women and the growing allure of entrepreneurialism. But most Americans still yearn to belong to organizations and would gladly trade their loyalty for security, just as their fathers did. If loyalty isn't what it used to be, it's primarily because in this fast-changing world, organizations have found it difficult to remain loyal to employees. To stay competitive, many companies have had to lay people off, cut benefits, or slow down salary increases.

One of the most troubling aspects of The New Individualists is that it perpetuates a negative distortion of Whyte's work. The Organization Man, Leinberger and Tucker contend, was "a great follower and a poor leader" who "neither valued creativity nor was ever accused of possessing it." This view denigrates the achievement of the managers who built America into the economic force it became during the postwar period. Much risk-taking and innovation went into that triumph, just as much managerial neglect has contributed to the subsequent decline in our competitiveness.

And what do Leinberger and Tucker say of the new generation? They are "poor followers and poor leaders . . . they function best in solitary situations, and when they find themselves in organizations, they tend to behave in ways that are purely self-interested, whether by single-mindedly pursuing their careers or by reserving their best energies for private life. . . ." In other words, some do this, and some do that. It's hard to generalize about the baby-boomers. But it's a safe bet that, 40 years from now, not many observers will be using the expression the New Individualists to define the generation that's currently coming to power.

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