I have several questions. Why, seven years after we got ourselves in such trouble, are there no serious new regulations to prevent a banking meltdown? Why would Target fail to properly encrypt its customer data, which is actually its greatest corporate asset? Why would François Hollande go see his girlfriend on a scooter, where he could be photographed on the way to his beauté call?
After much cogitation, I believe I may have the inkling of an answer to these questions.
I’ll start here: One day, when I was green as a fresh cucumber, I attended a high-level klatch of senior officers discussing the completion of a merger. There was a lot still to do. Road shows in support of federally mandated divestitures. New signage. Branding nightmares. My job was to sit and not talk. I did that.
My boss, Maria, was there to receive wisdom and say yes to whatever Jack wanted. People still smoked at meetings, and she lit up immediately. And then, while the big necks issued orders, she lit up one smoke after another, extruding a huge, bilious cloud of condescension, weariness, and most of all unwillingness to be insincere in the presence of senior management. After she left to get started on all the stuff she had to do and they didn’t, I remained to, you know, clean up my papers. Jack and I had a nice chat then. Forged the beginning of a relationship that carried me until the next chairman. Maria “retired” less than a year later. I took her job. She did all the work on that front, I think, by undermining herself so nicely.
This brings us to the other day when I heard that Harold had swallowed his own tongue again. Let me tell you about Harold. He’s really talented. Good looking. Gets along well with me, which is important, and with Morty Morton, his direct boss, which is just as key on a day-to-day basis. And that’s about it. That’s who he gets along with. Everybody else in his sphere has gotten the message: Get lost, I’m with Morty. And yet Harold is very ambitious! Wants a promotion and an expansion of duties. How do you figure it? Is he a doofus? Not really. He’s just sabotaging himself again.
A few months ago he was in a sales meeting, and people started talking about event planning. “That’s marketing,” Harold says. “I don’t do marketing.” Did I mention that the job expansion he’s looking for is actually in marketing? Thank goodness you and I are smarter.
Then there was the time he was invited to one of those industry gatherings where people are imprisoned in the Waldorf, eat small portions of inscrutable food, and fight to get enough wine. One of his colleagues, Bobbi, was being honored. The entire senior management structure was planning to attend. At the last minute Morty got a “toothache.” Everybody else was still on tap. But Harold, upon hearing that his direct boss would not be attending, dropped out too. Did I mention that Bobbi is the head of human resources?
Tomorrow, not being able to put things off any longer, I have a performance review with Harold. What do you think I should tell him? That he’s been digging his own career grave? That’s not constructive. I think I’ll tell him he’s doing great and he should come back in six months about that promotion. That ought to hold him.
So that’s it. The world is the way it is because a lot of people careen forward doing exactly what will ensure their destruction, and the people who should be helping them don’t. There’s nothing any of us can do about it, not really, even though we’re smarter than those crazy people.
I’m glad we ironed that out. You know what? I feel better! And since I have nothing else to do for the next few minutes, I think I’ll go do some shopping and banking on the Internet.
This story is from the February 24, 2014 issue of Fortune.