Why big ideas could threaten the future of business

Today's focus on image, brands and buzzwords may divert attention from the nuts and bolts of business. Is it time for us all to drop the hype and face reality?

According to the ancient story of Babylon, the inhabitants' plans to 'make a name for themselves' by building a tower reaching up to heaven were thwarted when God 'confused their language', throwing society into chaos.

Mythology is full of such cautionary tales, in which displays of grandiosity elicit some type of divine retribution - although ziggurats, pyramids and other memorials were once a common way for the elite to demonstrate their own importance.

While modern leaders may not go around erecting monuments, except for the odd dictator, grandiosity has by no means disappeared. In fact, according to Professor Mats Alvesson of UQ Business School and Lund University in Sweden, it is more pervasive than ever though the difference is that it is now accessible to all.

He believes we are living in a new age of grandiosity where image is all important and individuals and organisations alike are engaged in a constant drive to boost their status and emanate success - leading to the Triumph of Emptiness, as his recent book is called (Oxford University Press).

Nowadays everyone is a leader – few would admit to being a follower or even a manager. Managers have been upgraded to 'executives' and small business people have become 'entrepreneurs', while companies aim to be 'cutting edge' or 'world leading'.

In management, a whole new vocabulary of buzzwords has emerged. Procedures, rules and plans have given way to 'strategic visions', 'missions' and 'empowerment'. Rationalisation is now 'business process engineering' and management training is an 'executive development program'.

In a paper written by Professor Alvesson and Yiannis Gabriel of the University of Bath, they explain: "What is unique about the grandiosity of our age is the attempt to claim uniqueness and specialness by almost everyone, an attempt that sometimes becomes a desperate quest for self-importance. What was once a potentially disastrous quality of conquerors and potentates is now permeating popular as well as organisational cultures.'

They believe the new grandiosity is linked with the rise in consumerism, with its focus on youth, beauty and success. A general 'culture of narcissism' has developed, with everyone trying to build a positive self-image, often through consumption of objects, experiences and brands. By glamorising the everyday, advertising has played a major role in all this.

According to Professor Alvesson, grandiosity is not just a cultural issue – it can have serious implications for business by impeding critical reflection and undermining organisational performance and learning.

Narcissistic employees can all too easily embrace a company's glamorous image and become corporate acolytes, willing to sacrifice their personal life and comply unquestioningly with corporate goals.

Organisations with a sense of grandiosity are liable to have narcissistic leaders – attractive, imaginative individuals who relish the limelight and have a flair for communication. They can inspire followers and even turn around moribund businesses but by focusing more on PR and image than the 'nuts and bolts' of the business, they may ultimately bring about its demise.

Grandiosity also brings companies closer to their consumers, but as customers 'buy into the brand', employees are exposed to their critical gaze and may be judged on their looks, manners and 'personalities'. Even consumers themselves are seen as brand ambassadors, and maintaining a high class of customer becomes a goal in itself.

Overall, the ethos of grandiosity has given a new focus to the management role, says Professor Alvesson. "Instead of a preoccupation with efficient production and rational administration, management today is increasingly seeking to bewitch the consumer with the magical, the fantastic and the alluring. Management is increasingly preoccupied with the orchestration of grandiose fantasies and the venting of collective emotions through the power of image in glittering sites like shopping malls and other cathedrals of consumption."

Grandiosity also creates obstacles to learning. Who wants to learn about 'management' when 'leadership' offers a much more fascinating alternative, drawing attention away from the routine, messiness and triviality of organisational life?

Education increasingly focuses on how to appear impressive and sell oneself. Many occupations are about persuasion - sales, marketing, communication, consulting and management – and even those doing 'hands on' work increasingly rely on projecting the right image, not just doing a good job or having occupational or craft skills.

Professor Alvesson urges educators to reflect on the limits of leadership development programmes. "Often, intellectually honest and precise representation is inconsistent with the demands for grandiosity and hype. Instead of pretending to address 'leaders' or 'future leaders' they may meaningfully and with humility focus on educating people who will spend most of their lives as followers, seeking to develop their diverse abilities and potentials," he says.

For the rest of us, it may be time to come down to earth. We need to rediscover the importance of genuine skills, learning and humility, develop a tolerance for imperfections and uncertainty, and recognise that messiness and mundanity are all just a part of business reality.

Last updated:
27 February 2019