Chapter 16 of Martha’s Children, and hierarchies

In chapter 16 of Martha’s Children, “The shadowed livery of the burnished sun,” ex-cop and vampire Sherlock Kammen gets down to the business of helping to build what will become Chicago’s vampire police, if all goes well. There’s no blueprint; Ned O’Donnell, Kammen, and their colleagues have to make up the rules themselves. Meanwhile Kammen continues on his quest to find out what happened to Martha Fokker.

If you’re not reading Martha’s Children, my serial set in 1969 Chicago, you can start here. A new chapter goes up every Friday before noon.

Weber is considered one of the founders of Sociology

Weber is considered one of the founders of Sociology

A lot of Kammen’s problems in this chapter stem from the tensions created by an organization. Humans, like vampires, are hierarchical. We tend to look for leaders. At the same time, we often resent following leaders. A century ago, the sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) argued that there were two types of leaders: charismatic leaders, who inspire and lead people by their own personal gifts, and bureaucratic leaders, who hold their position because they satisfied some sort of standard process for selecting leaders for defined positions. The founders of religious groups are often charismatic leaders. Sadly, their successors typically become bureaucratic leaders. Many of the Founding Fathers rose to their positions in the American Revolutionary leadership thanks to their own talents, making them charismatic leaders. Far too many American Presidents took office because they were the beneficiaries of a well-defined process, making them bureaucratic ones. (Weber actually put democratically elected leaders in a third category, for reasons not relevant to this exposition. Still, I don’t want to misrepresent his thinking.)

The vampires are trying to build a brand new organization, but one which is modeled on an existing bureaucracy, the  Chicago Police Department, so they really need both types of leadership at once. This is putting enormous strain on Ned, particularly because, like most people in the modern world, he’s much more used to bureaucratic leadership than the charismatic type. You hold a rank and position in the Chicago Police Department, you know pretty much what you can do. Just as importantly, you know how much you have to defer to higher-ups, and how much respect you should be able to get simply by virtue of your position from people below you. In other words, leadership is about manners as much as power. Ned doesn’t have that sort of well-defined social structure to support him as yet, but that’s what he’s used to and that’s what he’s aiming for.

All this reminds me of a time in my own life when I worked as a low-level manager for a large corporation. The corporation was going through hard times that would eventually destroy it. No one’s job seemed safe anymore. The managers in my part of the company had taken to hoarding information as one of their tools to control their staffs.

One day we had an all-managers meeting, in which the two senior managers tried to understand why they were having so many problems with the junior managers. They did the logical thing: they asked the junior managers to tell them. The junior managers conferred and came up with a list of reasons. And, wouldn’t you know it, they selected me to be one of their spokespeople. I think I was selected because some of the explanations the junior managers offered were dynamite, and they picked the youngest manager in the group, me, to be the sacrificial lamb.

I took their dynamite and added a touch of nitroglycerin. One of their complaints was the communication problem between the two layers of management, which was not limited to information hoarding. When I brought this up, the senior managers looked puzzled, so I tried to think of a way to crystallize what we junior managers meant. Well, even then I was a historically-minded individual, so I reached into my memory, and explained to the senior managers that the communication problem was similar to that between Hitler and his generals.

It is probably a bad idea to compare your boss and your colleagues to Hitler and his generals (attr: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-771-0366-02A / CC-BY-SA)

It is probably a bad idea to compare your boss and your colleagues to Hitler and his generals
(attr: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-771-0366-02A / CC-BY-SA)

Dead silence.

Prolonged dead silence. My colleagues who knew me could scarcely believe what I had said, and were horrified. They were horrified by the comparison. They were also horrified by the way I had violated several social norms in addressing our senior managers. My colleagues who did not know me well were all that, and confused, to boot.

It was worse. As I said, there were two senior managers. One knew me fairly well. The other did not. He was of German ancestry. He wore a small mustache.

A nervous titter went round the room. Bright boy that I was, I realized something had gone wrong, and managed to get out some words glossing what I had just said into more appropriate management jargon, and then plowed on to the next point. The rest of the day went along, and while I got a few bemused glances, no one said anything to me.

About two weeks later, I ran into the senior manager I knew. He laughed about the incident (then!), saying that I was sometimes a bit too honest, not quite diplomatic enough. Then a few months later, we had a reorganization and a layoff. The senior manager of German ancestry became the sole senior manager. And I got laid off.

In truth, there were no doubt many other reasons why I was let go. Even so, I’d learned a lesson about violating unwritten but well-understood social norms about manners between different levels in a hierarchy. Why, I would go an entire decade before doing it again!


About Brian Bixby

I enjoy history because it helps me understand people. I'm writing fiction for much the same reason.
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14 Responses to Chapter 16 of Martha’s Children, and hierarchies

  1. Russell says:

    Wow — an entire decade without another major organizational gaffe, BB? 🙂

  2. E. J. Barnes says:

    “…he’s much more useD to bureaucratic leadership…”

  3. L. Palmer says:

    I’ve had similar moments while making a quick point – and then realized the point was misunderstood… Back-peddling is no fun.

  4. danagpeleg1 says:

    Brian, this is an awesome story, especially for demonstrating the complexity and oppressive nature of hierarchies… Yet, “humans are hierarchical”? I do agree we need leaders, but the structure around them doesn’t have to be hierarchical. Hierarchy, just like many other things we tend to think are natural to us, is part of patriarchy. Part of a structure we were raised to believe has always existed and is natural to us, yet it isn’t. Humans used to live differently, in more egalitarian societies (Marija Gimbutas, I’m sure you’re familiar with her work…), and some are still living this way, in remote places which somehow managed to escape capitalism. Kibbutzim even, until 20 years ago or so, still had a very cooperative structure, with a Kibbutz secretary and some managers, but they were mostly the executors of what the kibbutz assembly (which includes all the memebers) had decided. They fell due to the most likely reason such societies decline: outside pressure. I’d really recommand a book which looks at it (our natural tendency to cooperate) from a psychological point of view (now I need to brag) I’ve translated recently to Hebrew, Carol Gilligan’s “Joining the Resistance”.
    Having preached all that, I must say that yes, you have a point there, you absolutely do: patriarchy has been so wired into our system for the last 10,000 years or so, that even the most radical revolutionaries amongst us sometime imitate these structures, I’ve seen it with my very own eyes… and Ned is no radical or revolutionary, of course…

    • Brian Bixby says:

      I’m a bit skeptical of identifying hierarchy with patriarchy, partly because it’s a form of essentialism, ironically being deployed to combat the idea that patriarchy is essential human nature. I’d rather accept them as strongly related to each other in a historically contingent way. That said, we tend to measure the behavior of other species by what the most successful members do, so by that measure we are indeed normally patriarchal and hierarchical. That’s not to praise the situation, nor to say that is the only way humans relate to each other, nor that we can’t change (which is another way of saying it is not essential). The continued emergence of more co-operative endeavors, such as the kibbutzim, suggests that, under the right conditions, humans do behave in different ways.

      This IS a discussion worth pursuing, and I’ll be happy to have it with you when you’re in the States. Kudos for you for getting to translate a book by Carol Gilligan. I’ll be interested in hearing how her thought has developed since the time I took a class from her so many years ago.

  5. crimsonprose says:

    I too was put in a position of having to speak up at a HOD’s (Heads of Departments) meeting. Only I wasn’t a Head; I was only standing in for my manager. Well, I listened to them bickering and subtlely backstabbing, and something loosed my tongue. I told them – and the meeting was chaired by the GM – that they were just so many kids in the playground, and what was wrong with them, weren’t we all playing for the same team.
    When a couple of days later the GM came into my office (my manager had ceased to speak to me) I expected to be sacked. Instead, flabberghast, I was offered promotion. I was given an entire theatre to play with! It worked out well for me, but as a general rule, as you discovered, Brian, i wouldn’t recommend it as a means to promotion.

    • Brian Bixby says:

      Judging from your example, it would seem a wise move only if the higher managers are wiser than the people they have working for them . . . in which case why do they have such stupid people working for them? 😉

      • crimsonprose says:

        Without realising it, that was the point I was making, and why, in retrospect, I expected the GM to sack me. (The organisation, 2nd largest leisure outfit in UK at the time, was going through crisis – or at least East Anglian division was.) Instead, GM appreciated someone who wasn’t afraid to speak out. Couple of days later he gave me the job of liaising with the most notoriously awkward (adult) comedian in UK at the time. Talk about testing. Or maybe he was hoping I’d mess it up and he then could legitimately sack me!

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