The Games People Play

The Gamesman by Michael Maccoby '54 Simon and Schuster, 285 pp., $8.95

DADDY WARBUCKS KNEW how to play the game, Just let anybody mess around with his little orphan, Annie--Asian smuuglers, Russian spies out to topple the free world, mad opthamologists aiming to give her a pupil transplant--and the fun would start. Before Sandy could even "Arf," Daddy would be on the scene in his 200-foot yacht, puffing on a dark Havana as he watched Punjab and the Asp contrive a properly nasty comicstrip zoom for the malefactors. It was a fun little game, and Daddy played it just right, cool and cunning and with just the faintest suggestion that he was enjoying the hell out of the whole show. Then he'd weigh anchor and take everybody over to South Africa to watch the natives yank a few more million out of his diamond mines. A real character, that Daddy Warbucks. Too bad he wasn't real.

But maybe he is. At least, that's the impression the reader gets from The Gamesman, psychologist Michael Maccoby '54's latest entry in the pop sociology derby. Maccoby's book is an interesting profile of what he calls the new American corporate elite, a series of case studies designed to illustrate exactly just what type of person runs the companies thatrun your life. Maccoby's answer--that American companies are presided over by a passel of hyperactive, hypercool chess players who are only in the business world for the thrill of the sport--may sound a bit farfetched, but his research and analysis are intriguing enough, and his writing breezy enough, to carry his more dubious conclusions. And, if when you finish you still don't quite believe that Daddy Warbucks is alive and well and living in the executive suites of America, at least you will have a bit more insight into what does make the typical business mind tick so relentlessly.

The author takes his argument where others, such as David Riesman '31, Ford II Professor of the Social Sciences Emeritus, left off in the 1950s. Maccoby's Gamesman is a further evolution of Riesman's corporate man, a tough, manipulative manager of people and industrial systems rather than an entrepreneur with marketable skills. What makes the Gamesman different, though, is what makes him want to do all that manipulating in the first place--not money, not power, but instead the glory and satisfaction that come from being a winner. The modern businessman, it seems, is driven not by a work ethic, but a win ethic, an odd philosophy that seems to reduce life to an endless string of fourth-down goal-line stands. The book brings to mind Vince Lonbardi's famous benediction to the Green Bay Packers' "Winning isn't everything--it's the only thing". The thought is not a soothing one.

BUT IF you do not care for the idea of a bunch of erstwhile high school quarterbacks running the largest economic machine in the world, you cannot fault Maccoby for his research. With a grant from Harvard's Program on Technology and Society, Maccoby spent about six years interviewing 250 business managers around the country, probing sometimes as long as six hours at a time to pick out important character traits. What he discovered was that certain personality types are far more successful than others in gravitating to the top of the corporate heap, while the rest are either forced out along the way or drop out on their own, for lack of desire. Three of the identified species--the Craftsman, who succeeds because of his skill in producing a fine product, the Jungle Fighter, whose specialty is high-stakes politicking and backstabbing, and the Company Man, who gets ahead because he'd rather lose his family than his job--are familiar types who have had their day but are being slowly phased out by a fourth wunderkind. It is the Gamesman, Maccoby maintains, who by his natural competitiveness and daring is best suiting to run the corporate monoliths in an increasingly faster-paced, constantly changing society. Playing with both people and technology, the Gamesman combines the attributes of the other types but infuses them all with a gambler's nerve and a yachtman's strategic flair. Like the proper British fox-hunter, though, he insists through it all that he's only in it for the sport, old chap, and of course we won't skin him when the hunt is over.

Anyone who has ever been skinned by a large company knows better. While strategy and nerves may play a much greater role in American business than ever before, certain things never change. Big business might well be a game, but it is not played with Monopoly money, and at the end of the year people still have to look at the bottom line and see how much they owe the kitty. It simply does not seem realistic to claim, as Maccoby does, that


For the gamesman, a high salary is important mainly because this is the way the game is scored, and he doesn't want to fall behind the others. He sees his salary not in terms of becoming rich, but in comparative terms of staying ahead of others in his peer group.

That all sounds fine in psychological, motivational terms, but it ignores the fact that businessmen have homes and families, daughters that have to go to the orthodontist and sons that want to go to sleep-away camp, and that all of these things cost money. Lots of it, and the Cost-of-Living Index isn't going down, not to mention the Cost-of-Living-Well Index. Abstracting the Almighty Dollar from the picture might well give Maccoby a more interesting thesis for his book, but it only distorts the picture like a fun-house mirror. The sad fact is that only the absurdly wealthy can afford to play games with their money.

Maccoby realizes this, of course, and does a neat job of ignoring it. The book, he maintains, is only a psychological profile, not a definitive tome on American business practices. And to an extent, he is right: as a psychologist, he deals in the abstract, approaching society with a precise scientific manner that far outclasses the pat ramblings of pop sociologists such as Vance Packard and Alvin Toffler. His findings are interesting, and certainly valuable for their portrayal of the different types of drives that keep the engine of the American economy running. Indeed, in one chapter, Maccoby strikes home with a telling analysis of "the head and the heart" of the successful corporate figure, painting a clear picture that should stand as a warning to the closet pre-professional:

Careerism results not only in constant anxiety, but also in an underdeveloped heart... The careerist constantly betrays himself, since he must ignore idealistic, compassionate, and courageous impulses that might jeopordize his career. As a result, he never develops an inner center, a strong, independent sense of self...

IN THE END, the flaw in Maccoby's book is that he does prcisely what he scores his subjects for doing. By abstracting business from the unavoidable reality of money, common ambition and greed, he becomes too cerebral. By dealing solely with psychological impulses, he over-analyzes as badly as the Gamesman who cannot allow compassion to enter his own careful cost-benefit analyses. Perhaps this was intentional--the Gamesman Maccoby portrays is certainly an interesting figure, and interesting figures sell books--but more likely it was simply the product of an understandable enthusiasm to make a careful scholarly presentation as entertaining as possible. Given the subject matter's potential for sheer stultifying boredom, the reader should probably be grateful.

But no matter what the reason, the reader should take what Maccoby says to heart. Even if the Gamesman were an exaggeration of a type, there is still enough truth in the rumor to make the average person tread carefully. It was the Gamesman, after all, who made it to the top of the business pile just in time to get the call to Washington and Camelot from the greatest gamesman of the all--President John F. Kennedy '40--and who stayed on to overanalyze the country into its most agonizing decade. Sound business tactics and calculated risks brought America into Vietnam and Cambodia, riots and recessions, and then into the Age of Nixon. Perhaps that last agony was America's reaction against gamesmanship, a return to the happy days of Commie-hunting and jungle-fighting. But the game was not over, even after the purge. And it is still going on now, not only in the posh executive offices and conference rooms, but down in Washington, where it is played to the accompaniment of country music, overdrafts and soft Georgia drawls in the background. After all, as Coolidge said, the business of America is business, so it's no surprise to see the game go on and on. We can only hope it is played by the rules.

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