Seduced By the "Tiger Mother"? Beware Too Much Obedience

Last Updated Jan 28, 2011 7:35 AM EST

Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother has attracted great notoriety with its unapologetic tales of how Chua browbeat her daughters into straight As and Carnegie Hall performances: no fun sleepovers, no movies, no crafts. Just relentless schoolwork, 3 hours of practice daily (vacations, too), and punishment if they failed to come in first.

Chua seems to believe this is how you make people great. I think it's how you turn them into cannon fodder. The last thing we need is a cowed, submissive bunch of people - however good their grades - whose core competence is doing as they're told. Having spent the last two years studying business catastrophes, as far as I'm concerned, obedience is where the trouble starts.
Everybody and her sister has laid into Chua (including other Chinese or Chinese-American parents who don't want to be tarred by her brush). David Brooks, quite rightly, argued that the hard stuff at school isn't math or music; it's relationships. And in adult life, at work, it's being able to collaborate and play well with others that distinguishes the stars. By then, straight As count for nothing.

But I see something far scarier in Chua's assumptions than the mere specter of hyper kids and pushy parents. At heart, what Chua's kids (and, pace David Brooks, the kids of many pushy middle class parents) were learning was obedience: shut up, do as you're told and the rewards will come.

The Enron factor
Stories like that scare me, for the simple reason that the biggest business disasters we've seen in the last decade have all required legions of obedient executives to silence their qualms and follow orders. Think Enron and the trading floor full of what Sherron Watkins told me were colloquially known as "the Hitler Youth". Think Arthur Andersen, where "troublemakers" who questioned the firm's Enron rulings were let go or moved on. Think of sub-prime mortgages sold by compliant execs who knew the products were mad, bad and dangerous to sell. That's where obedience gets you.
"It's okay for you: you give orders and people follow!"
That statement was spoken by an envious MBA student to Fred Krawchuk, a lieutenant-colonel in the US army. The only military man in his business school class, Krawchuk found that his peers envied the unquestioned authority they imagined he had. Krawchuk, however, knows better. He appreciates how dangerous obedience can be and he neither expects it nor wants it.

"Obedience is too simple," he told me. (We were Skypeing, as he was in Afghanistan at the time.) "In a highly complex situation like this one, anything that simple doesn't work. There is something else about moral courage, about standing up for what is right. You don't just wait to be told what to do."

Before going to Afghanistan, Krawchuk worked in Asia with national and local governments, local populations, and non-governmental organizations to build infrastructure -- water, medical care, education -- in highly volatile situations. Like most businesses, his work was not susceptible to simple solutions.

The My Lai factor
"There is a tension between obedience, the duty to do the right thing and the notion of blind obedience when you're struggling to suppress your own conscience despite evidence that things are wrong. I think one of the things that is clear to us in the military is that we are taught to speak up when we witness something negligent, abuse, criminal conduct."

One of the central lessons everyone learns, of course, is My Lai.

"My Lai is a story I've heard over and over again; everyone does. But I think one of the experiences that has inspired me the most was a commander who came and told us his resignation letter was in his desk. We all sat there wondering what was going on. So he told us: "The day I'm asked to do something not proper or ethical, I am ready to stand my moral ground and make a difficult decision."

The military is ahead of business on this one

In exploring the theme of obedience, I'm struck that the military has thought about it longer and harder than most business leaders. The military knows its bitter cost - but does anyone else? An obedient workforce may feel efficient but it will leave you blind, without challenge or question. Krawchuk's peers might have envied his authority; he knew how carefully he had to wield it.
As employers, we need to recognize that our employees have more pressures on them than ever before: huge student debt, gigantic mortgages, a weak job market. All of those pressures threaten to make this the most compliant, submissive workforce we've ever seen. That isn't an opportunity to be envied; it is a risk every business leader should fear.

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    Margaret Heffernan has been CEO of five businesses in the United States and United Kingdom. A speaker and writer, her most recent book Willful Blindness was shortlisted for the Financial Times Best Business Book 2011. Visit her on www.MHeffernan.com.