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Thinking & Stinking at the Harvard Business Review

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The Harvard Business Review has been called “a leading source in business thinking” and “the most influential magazine in America.” In its media kit it describes itself as “the source of the best new ideas for the people who are creating, leading and transforming business.” If the feature article, ”Five Killer Strategies for Trouncing the Competition” by George Stalk Jr. and Rob Lachenauer in the April 2004 issue, is charting the direction for corporate America, it may be stinking more than thinking. The “killer strategies” champion every conceivable down and dirty technique for destroying competitors.

Yes, we know it’s a rough and tumble not for wimps fiercely competitive world marketplace out there. But does that rule out fairness, sharing, negotiation, “live and let live,” or other civilized measures that transcend fanatical worship at the temple of the holy buck.

Most disturbing about this article is the unrestrained endorsement of brutal combat with no hint of compassion or sensitivity to the needs and aspirations of others—or even their right to exist.

It relishes the aggressive language of football and the military posturing of attack, and even deception.

Not surprising, therefore, that the article applauds an employee motivational campaign they say was used by Southwest Airlines called “commencement of hostilities.” In cities where Southwest Airlines faced their toughest competition “employees came to work wearing camouflage outfits and battle helmets.” While this campaign was apparently initiated prior to 9/11, is it a scenario we should now be cheering in this time of terrorism when we are trying to beef up security, especially at airports?

The only “restraint” evidenced is the sprinkling of warnings that some of the recommended strategies may skirt the edges of legality: “The hardball player ventures closer to the boundary, whether it be established by law or social conventions, than the competitors would ever dare.” But even here one suspects they are winking rather than blinking. Winning is not enough. You should “devastate rivals’ profit sanctuaries.” Must success be built on the annihilation and ruins of others?

What about this doozy: “Plagiarize with pride.” Don’t people get fired for that and ruin their careers? To avoid the eleventh commandment –don’t get caught– they shrewdly advise to only steal ideas that aren’t “nailed down by a robust patent” (winking or blinking?).

If all of these recommendations aren’t grimy enough, here’s the most troublesome one: “Deceive the competition.”

The model for this dark strategy is the sports “fake” like the fake hand off in football. The quarterback fakes a handoff to a running back. If successful the entire defense goes for the runner who doesn’t have the ball (the goods) leaving the quarterback with wide open options for running or passing without the nuisance of defenders. Applied to business, you announce services or products that you don’t have to throw off your competition thus forcing them to divert resources to engage the phantoms. To insure that the “hardball state of mind” works you need the final coup de grace of unleashing “massive and overwhelming force.” Only then will you “have what it takes to play hardball.” The forthright message with no regrets and a take no prisoners philosophy is: Grab the buck by whatever means and don’t look back, sideways, who you are steamrolling over in you forward thrust—and certainly don’t look in any mirrors. The more carnage the better, especially if it fattens the coffers.

In fairness, there are many sound suggestions for improving a business, developing focus, cutting costs, making bold and swift adjustments to adapt to changing conditions, and vigilantly rising to the challenges of a highly competitive global economy. Too bad much of that is lost in the vicious overarching militarism of the model. Where is concern for how this model of destructive killer force will be perceived in the global marketplace of a shrinking list of friends of America with widespread suspicion about our motives, tactics and agendas. And what ever happened to our principles of equality, and justice for all? I think a bit more attention should be focused on the “all.”

If the views on business tactics were limited to the authors of the article we could just groan, shrug our shoulders and walk away. But read the editor’s introduction to the April issue of the Harvard Business Review and you will find Thomas Stewart singing praises for “Hard Ball” endorsing “employing massive and overwhelming force until your adversary cedes the field to you.” He then proudly boasts that the entire April issue is “a kick-ass issue of HBR.” Is this the image of American business that we should gleefully advertise and export to the world?

HARVARD: Is this what you call leading the way?

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Bernard Starr, Ph.D. is a psychologist, journalist and college professor. He has written commentary and op-ed articles for the Scripps Howard News Service that have appeared in newspapers throughout the United States, and he hosted a commentary, “The Longevity Report,” on WEVD-AM radio for seven years. He currently teaches psychology at Marymount Manhattan College where he is also Co-Executive Director of The Center for Learning and Living.
E-mail: LWThink@aol.com.

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