The Lazlo Emergency Commission Report

By David Hunt, PE

I love science fiction. Being an engineer I love reading about the technology / science dreamed up to solve problems like interstellar travel, disease, creative aliens, etc. But I also – contrary to many engineers – enjoy the human elements of the stories too. (Side sci-fi plug: Frank Herbert’s Dune is, IMHO, the greatest sci-fi novel of all time. I read it, didn’t understand most of it, and the moment I finished the last page flipped back and started it again. I read it annually, and still find new things in it that I hadn’t seen, or new insights into human nature that I, now older and hopefully wiser, hadn’t grasped before. That’s the beauty of truly great literature.)

So what’s sci-fi got to do with things? Life imitates art.

In the novel The Forever War (link has spoiler!) mankind is engaged in a life-or-death battle with a race called the “Taurans.” And after the war has gone on for centuries, humanity decides to genetically engineer soldiers into someone’s idea of a perfect soldier – and I’m going from memory here as I can’t find my copy of the book: A combination of the Praetorian Guard, the Nazi SS, the Russian Spetznaz, etc. These soldiers were vicious, incredible athletes, worked together seamlessly, placed no emphasis on individualism or their own survival… and they got cut to ribbons costing humanity many critical battles.

Today’s employers use personality profiling on candidates to search for people who most closely match their particular vision of an ideal <fill in position here> in order to create perfect teams who will minimize interpersonal conflicts. As I wrote on my old blog in a post Diversity of What?:

Just think about how insidious this is. Companies are screening out people based on the ability or inability to show the proper personality for a given position. Just imagine – a group of Accountants who all think alike tasked with developing a new way to achieve a faster end-of-quarter closing. A team of Engineers who all think alike assigned to brainstorm, create, test, and launch an innovative new product. And so on.

More terrible, the hidden implication is that by hiring a person to be the “perfect engineer” (or whatever) a company is hiring to fill that slot with little-to-no consideration of the person’s future potential. Sure, companies have a need for an engineer, but one of the roles of Personnel (note, I used the right word this time) is to work to bring on board people who can grow and develop in the organization in addition to helping fill the immediate needs.

(Sidebar note: My essay in the New Hampshire Business Review reprises some of the points from the above blog post regarding the need for “fresh eyes” to drive innovation.)

So the first point that I’d like to make is that people are not robots. Every person has arrived at today via a unique path, and to think that there is some factory “out there” creating perfect fits for a position is folly. We also have unique personalities, and even if two persons have similar backgrounds and career paths – even tested personality types – personalities and egos can nevertheless result in clashes.

The second point, though, is more significant, and goes back to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

While many people are dedicated to their jobs, employers, and careers, most people work to live, not live to work. Unless a person is a “company man” of a kind rarely seen in this era of rapid job shifts – the average longevity of a person in a company these days being on the order of three years – they place more value on their personal life than their company life. More importantly, they place their ability to sustain that life above any loyalty they might feel when the news is filled with stories of entire departments being slashed, and kept around only long enough to train their overseas replacements.

Which brings me back to the Lazlo Emergency Commission Report, cited in the novel. Despite having created teams of ideal soldiers, the effort was a failure that almost cost humanity its survival (I won’t truly spoil the novel’s conclusion – it’s a good read). The conclusion was that we won battles when we had soldiers who were well-trained, well-equipped, and who fought like hell for their own individual survival. The program of engineering idealized soldiers was abandoned.

Teamwork is good, and people need to subsume some of their individual goals for the good of the team. Most people can, and do. Further, teams can be very useful for generating ideas and alternatives and considering multiple viewpoints, analyzing failures, etc. But, given Maslow, great leaders recognize that people are ultimately at work for their own individual survival. Pay games, personality tests for idealized profiles, relative rankings of employees against other employees – all can result in a perception that the employer is pitting employee against employee. Even when this perception is mild, often there is the implicit message that if a person does well, they will only get the “employment continuation award”; the hidden threat is that they might be on the edge and thus better strive even harder to continue getting that award.

When all is said and done, people value their ability to meet their life goals above their ability to meet their employer’s goals. The key to organizational success is to lead with a vision to inspire, not threaten, people. I remember a key line from the classic epic Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, in which an orc in charge of a military unit opines “Where there’s a whip, there’s a will.” I still remember thinking, even in my tender years when I first read that line, that the only inspiration this provides is to do the minimum needed to avoid being whipped. (And it has the second disadvantage of creating resentment of the one doing the whipping.)

We herd sheep, we drive cattle, we lead people. Lead me, follow me, or get out of my way. – General George S. Patton

Only by inspiring people to see their self-interest as being aligned towards a higher goal do great leaders motivate people, as highlighted by this short anecdote:

A man was touring the construction site of a medieval cathedral. He saw a young man roughing out a stone and asked what he was doing. “I’m carving a stone,” was the answer.

He then saw a somewhat older man carving a bas relief on a stone and asked the same question. “I’m helping build a cathedral,” the second man replied.

Then he saw a man taking these intricately-carved stones and fitting them together and once more asked his question. “I’m glorifying G-d,” said the oldest of the three.

So, a few conclusions.

1. Trying to screen candidates to form a perfectly-functioning team built to an idealized vision and that works together with minimal conflict will, in the long run, backfire. (IMHO conflict is where the best innovation arises!)

2. People arrive at the present through unique paths; there is no such thing as an ideal candidate. (Ironically, companies tout diversity while using personality profiles to eliminate it.)

3. People may work in teams, but for the vast majority of people their own survival takes precedence over the organization’s goals. Only when they’re not worried about lower-levels of Maslow’s hierarchy (like their employer’s control over their ability to put food on the table) can they truly focus on the higher ones (like work goals).

4. A good leader will use fear only sparingly, but will instead inspire and find ways to – on a person-by-person basis – align the team’s goals with the self interest of each team member. (Note – I am by no means saying this is easy!)

With shameless self-reference, check out the quote on this image which I posted earlier.

I am dedicating this essay to David Hildreth, my first boss when I joined Ford Motor Company. Of all the people for whom I’ve worked, he is the only one who – if he called me tomorrow and asked me to come work for him again (which would require relocation to a place I’d rather not live) – I’d seriously consider it… because it was he who asked. He inspired me to be a better engineer, and set me on the path to being a better person to boot.

Would your subordinates – past or present – say that about you?

(c) 2013, David Hunt, PE

David Hunt is a Mechanical Design Engineer in southern New Hampshire looking for his "next opportunity" that allows him to design new products and shepherd them to stable production. His LinkedIn profile is:; he blogs at and tweets at @davidhuntpe.

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