Book review: ‘Elites’ by Douglas Board

One of the many paradoxes of management is that those who aren’t in the elite echelons tend to despise those who are, while harbouring ambitions to be just like them. The line between these two factions isn’t always easy to identify, but a good marker, says author Douglas Board in ‘Elites: Can You Rise to the Top Without Losing Your Soul?’ (Eye Books, £12.99, ISBN 9781785632228), is that those who are truly of the upper levels have shorter CVs than those who are not.

Before you become powerful and influential everything gets listed. After the breakthrough happens, just a few words will do. Board invites us to consider Quentin Tarantino, whose early career is described on Wikipedia at a level of detail that is frighteningly soporific. Then comes Reservoir Dogs, and that’s all you need to know. It follows that to become an elite surely all we need to do is cut the word count on our resumés.

If only it were that simple, says Broad, because that’s the effect and not the cause. We know when we’re in the presence of the power elite in business because their currency is time, and their objective is to stress their superiority by squandering ours. We’ve all been in situations where we’ve waited weeks to schedule a meeting, then we wait for hours in the corridor, and then only get a few unsatisfying minutes in the room. But power is as power does, and all these people will get their comeuppance if only, somehow, we can take their place without turning into them.

‘Can you rise to the top without losing your soul?’ ponders the subtitle of the book, a question to which the answer is, inevitably, ‘no, unless you use the following toolkit of ideas that I’ve developed from my long career on the fringes of power.’

Nothing specifically wrong with that, and Broad is especially interesting on why meritocracies create glass ceilings in the first place when your instinct would lead you to suppose that assisting a smooth transition to the top is the point of a meritocracy. We end up with a misallocation of respect for the few in command simply because they are in command, argues Broad: and that hurts all of us. Put simply, those beneath the ceiling are led to believe that the only pathway to success is deference (which is different from obsequiousness), while those above keep everyone in their place by hiding in their cavernous offices waiting for the queues of riffraff in the corridor hoping for an audience to get bored and go away.

If Broad’s picture looks bleak, he at least points the reader in some optimistic directions. We can achieve a more humane world in which organisations and individuals ‘hold in balance the ordinariness of society’s extraordinary achievers,’ by showing them less respect. The question is, after all this inside knowledge, do we still want to become part of the elite?

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