Book Review: Gung Ho!

It’s a 1998 book on management written in the form of fiction, by Ken Blanchard and Sheldon Bowles (Blanchard, with various collaborators, is behind the very successful One Minute Manager books). So how does this fit in with the whole idea of Macho Lit? Well:-

  1. It can’t be denied that, in spite of every effort to promote equality in the workplace, there’s still plenty of machismo in business.
  2. THE BOOK IS CALLED “GUNG HO!”! It even has an exclamation mark in the title!

To be fair to Blanchard and Bowles, they explicitly take their title from the original meaning of “gung ho”, the Chinese for “working together” adopted as a slogan in a unit of the US Marine Corps during World War II. Originally, the phrase didn’t have anything in particular to do with “bayonet charging the enemy whilst screaming “America!” at the top of your lungs”, which is more its association nowadays. I can only assume people decided everything the Marines did had to have something to do with fighting wars the Leeroy Jenkins way.

Anyway, “Gung Ho!” is the story of Peggy Sinclair, a rising star in an unnamed company who gets handed the poisoned chalice – being manager of Walton Works No. 2, its least efficient plant, which she soon realises she has to turn round in a matter of months to avoid closure. The one bright spot in the factory is the finishing department (what exactly they finish is never explained), headed by Native American Andy Longclaw. Unsurprisingly, Peggy asks Andy what he’s doing that everyone else isn’t, and the rest of the book is essentially Peggy learning Andy’s ideas on motivating your staff (the Gung Ho of the title) and applying them so successfully that after a few years everyone’s flying to Washington DC to get efficiency awards from the President. Then Andy dies, but fortunately the authors’ self-inserts are able to meet Peggy and get the untold story about the reason for all the success from her.

If this all sounds like rather a fairy tale, that’s because when you try to impart real world truths through fiction, fairy tales will tend to result. Fiction, in itself, isn’t evidence for anything. The writer decides in advance what he thinks the truth is and then makes the story show it to be true. Of course, there is a long history of using stories for educational purposes, and it has the advantage of keeping the audience interested and engaged. But at the end of the exercise, the writer still hasn’t proved his point; if you disagree, you’re probably one of those people who became an Objectivist solely because of reading “Atlas Shrugged” or “The Fountainhead,” and I admire your perseverance if nothing else.

It is a general weakness of management texts, especially the more popular ones, to rely heavily on anecdotal evidence to support their theories, still worse on anonymous anecdotal evidence (“In one company I heard about, this thing happened, which totally supports my ideas!”). “Gung Ho!” goes one better, and produces basically no evidence for whether Blanchard and Bowles’ theories on staff motivation work. You have to take that on trust. My personal view on that, to adapt an old joke, is “In God we trust. All others should prove it.”

Actually, this education-through-fiction approach has negative consequences for the fiction as well. For the story to work, we have to believe that Andy’s department has been the only efficient one in this factory, and indeed the most efficient in the whole company, for years, and no-one before Peggy has bothered to investigate why. Basically, it’s one of those plots that only works through everyone but the heroine being an idiot. Blanchard and Bowles try to make this convincing by making Andy’s Divisional Manager a fairly blatant racist who won’t admit his “Indian” subordinate’s achieving anything. This isn’t impossible, but even at the time the story’s set (some point in the ’80s), it’s unlikely someone that senior would display overt racism in front of his new boss, which he does. And anyway, how come no-one else in senior management or at Head Office has shown any interest? Do they not want to run a successful company?

It is very much to the authors’ credit that they make the central characters of a business book a woman (and apparently a single, childless woman) and a Native American, and they do make sincere efforts to avoid turning Andy into the dreaded “magical Red Indian” stereotype. Andy’s very much a modern man, has an MBA, and having just predicted the likely course of the weather, adds that his source is the local TV weather forecaster rather than “heap big medicine” or something. Unfortunately, you can’t really get around the stereotype when you have your Native American protagonist dispensing wisdom supposedly derived from his grandfather and talking about The Spirit of the Squirrel, The Way of the Beaver (huh, huh, they said “beaver”!) and The Gift of the Goose.

They also rather dodge around the question of why a single woman and a widowed man, apparently compatible in every other way, clearly liking each other, and spending lengthy periods in each others’ company, don’t develop any kind of romantic relationship. There’s sort of an implication that the tragic death of Andy’s wife and only child in an accident might have something to do with this, but that’s supposed to have happened twenty years or so before they met. Whilst I understand the concept of loyalty to your dead spouse, it is stretching plausibility to show someone being quite that loyal, and really stretching it to not mention the firestorm of gossip that would undoubtedly be stirred up in a small town if a couple of fairly prominent locals acted like this.

OK, you might not really want a romantic sub-plot in your business book, but it would have only cost a few sentences. It’s also possible that Blanchard and Bowles wanted to show that a man and a woman could be “just friends” or mentor and mentee without anything sexual happening, but I think you’d need to give your characters more background than they are able to in the space available in order to make that work.

So, that’s “Gung Ho!” for you. Do the authors’ theories of staff motivation, which basically boil down to “don’t be the micro-managing autocrat of a crew of bored wage slaves” work? Well, they sound nice on paper, but I honestly have to say I have no idea – as I said, fiction proves nothing. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to read “The One Minute Golfer”, which Blanchard apparently also wrote. Whether I like it or not, I think I’m going to have to waste at least one minute of my life on things relating to golf, and it’ll be nice to get it all done at once.

 

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