THE several case reports about not-quite-bright executives, which appeared here a few months ago, were construed by some readers to have been offered in a humorous vein. The fact is, of course, that the examples came from real-life situations but space was not available, unfortunately, to account fully for the success of those executives in spite of what might seem to be their common disability — i.e., unbrightness. A further view of how these and similarly placed individuals actually spend their working hours will show that unbrightness is a business asset and not a handicap.
Let us begin with Bunker. It will be recalled that his job printing company was a great money-maker in spite of Bunker, for reasons quite beyond his control. In this circumstance, the content of Bunker’s workday follows a simple, unchanging pattern. Fond of figures, Bunker spends his forenoon in checking, with his bookkeeper, a list of invoices sent on the previous day to his customers.
The bookkeeper reads aloud from one list, and Bunker, after each amount is read, repeats it aloud from an identical list. Bunker keeps track of it all by running his forefinger down the column of figures, so that he knows at every point how far the work has progressed. “Ninety-three dollars and seventy-one cents,” reads the bookkeeper. “Nine-ty-three dollars and seventy-one cents!” comes back Bunker, unerringly. Because it is, after all, his company and not the bookkeeper’s, Bunker reads his list more deliberately, more portentously; he achieves the effect of a diligent scholar at work on a hard problem but getting the right answer — nobody’s fool, Bunker every time.
Unusually large items he reads unctuously, like a university president announcing additions to the endowment. “Two thou-sand four hun-dred and eigh-ty-six dol-lars and fif-ty cents!” For such a big billing, Bunker will add the word “Keerect!” or “Check and double-check!” This last is taken to mean that Bunker would relish seeing more such big ones on the list, and the bookkeeper knows just when to pause and give him time for these ejaculations. Afternoons, Bunker repeats aloud, as they are read to him, the payroll, a list of invoices payable by Bunker’s company, the list of checks to be deposited the next day in the company’s bank account, and any other set of figures available. It would all be exhausting to an intelligent man, but Bunker can take it in stride.
The next executive, Callow, we remember as the head of an investment trust who inadvertently went long in 1932 and has been coasting in that position ever since. Callow likes dogs, and his two boxers are the bane of all milkmen, delivery boys, letter carriers, and indeed all guests at Callow’s home. Most of his business day is spent on correspondence with the countless kennel clubs and breeders’ associations of which he is an officer. Callow is much in demand as a judge at dog shows, and this obliges him to travel a great deal. He does, however, attend the company’s annual meeting and each year he makes the same speech; it was written for him in 1933 and it explains why the short-term behavior of the investments is unimportant, in contrast with the long pull. (A statistician in Callow’s office brings the figures in the speech up to date each year.)
Two other executives, not mentioned in our previous report, should be included here — Strangely, buyer for the furniture department of a large store, and Stupor, vice president in charge of freight traffic for a railroad. Both qualify readily as not at all bright, and the workday of each is highly successful on that account.
No one in the railroad office ever sees much of Stupor. He is always away somewhere, traveling in his private car, host to a party of big shippers. Nothing impresses a businessman so profoundly as a private car, even though it must be hitched to the slower trains and often means sleeping at night against the cacophony of railroad yards.
Thus, Stupor’s car tours the national parks and the northern beaches in the summertime, and California and the Gulf coast during the cold months. Stupor never looks at a rate schedule, but the clerk who travels with him (and who puts him to bed every night) takes care of all such details. Whether freight traffic has increased on account of Stupor or simply because of the expanding economy, no one particularly cares. The railroad has always approached big shippers in this fashion and, having turned Stupor loose on the assignment, it never got around to shutting him off. Stupor, meanwhile, hasn’t drawn a sober breath in many years.
The case of Strangely the only one of the executives considered here who actually does a day’s work at his supposed function — presents one of those inscrutable mysteries of the business world. Strangely’s taste as a furniture buyer is shocking. Only the ugliest, the most uncomfortable, and the most useless examples of bad furniture, only the most repulsive colors and textiles, will suffice for his department, which is celebrated throughout the trade as the one dependable dumping ground for a manufacturer’s mistakes. Strangely will buy anything in any amount if it’s bad enough. He is a pariah among the store’s other executives, who would recoil at the thought of walking through one of his junk-cluttered aisles; he is the butt of all salesmen and his own staff. But for reasons unknown, Strangely’s selections are perfectly attuned to the taste of the store’s customers. Not even the stupidest clerk — and there are unbright clerks as well as unbright executives — can deter Strangely’s customers from pouncing on the appalling things that Strangely buys. Year in, year out, Strangely’s stuff sells.