# 68: Broken Elites

Herles, Benedikt (2015). Die Kaputte Elite: Ein Schadensbericht aus unseren Führungsetagen, 136–37.

Story behind the Passage

Yes, it is not nice to choose a German book again for a blog in English. Still, I decided in favor of this one today because I am constantly being confronted with the issue of elites — or rather with their slow decline. Benedikt Herles in the book Die Kaputte Elite (The Broken Elites) talks about his experience in business consulting. As I mentioned before, there was a time when I was interested in becoming a consultant for one of the major business companies. So, I know why these companies are attractive in some way. It is not just the money, it is the steep learning curve and the fast pace that makes you work like a horse for a few years — if you fit in.

Of course, I did not fit in. Or rather, my skills did not fit in. I did go to one interview but I screwed up the analytical test and the case studies. The funny thing was: Culturally, I mean, as far as the organizational culture fit of the company was concerned, I did fit in. In the final feedback that I got on the phone, the guy told me: “It is such a pity that you did not pass the case studies. We liked your mindset, you fit in well. The good thing is: The case study issue is something that you can fix if you prepare well!”

Hmmm. I am still not sure if that was a good thing he told me. Is it not quite scary to fit in there?

In any case, Herles did work in consulting and in the book, he shares his critical insights about the industry. I bought the book because I had read similar accounts from the U.S. before for my last academic book. They all share that highly qualified young women and men enter business schools, graduate with outstanding results after working really hard but not actually learning much, and then end up taking a job in consulting (or in investment banking in the U.S.). What is most interesting to me about Herles’ report is that he also shifts his attention to the humanities.

My Learnings

“Geisteswissenschaftler kommen kaum vor unter Deutschlands wichtigsten Managern.“ („There are hardly any people from the humanities among Germany’s leading managers.”) It is no secret that I am an advocate of “more brain” in business. My own story is linked to the experience that thinking is an obstacle in companies. Many managers do not like thinking. Supposedly, it costs time and thus money. I understand that because thinking can easily evolve into overthinking and then it really costs money. But some thinking would help a lot. What I observe in business, in corporates but also in startups, is that some fake sense of “just do it” spirit leads to hardly any thinking at all. That is harmful for business and society.

But if nobody thinks about this, nobody notices!

I was in fact surprised to find this quote in the book today. I wanted to write about the struggles that ‘elites’ are facing and therefore turned to Die Kaputten Eliten. Herles, even though the book was written five years ago, would still be right. There are no humanities folks in the C-suite. I just went through the list of DAX corporates myself a few weeks ago. And my argument is: It would make a difference for individual businesses and for the entire economy if it were otherwise. But the problem is not only one of “nobody allows them to climb the corporate ladder.” The problem is also: They do not even try!

When I coach junior scholars in the humanities, it is always the same thing: “A career in business? Rather not!” And do not get me wrong: I am not saying everyone should take a job in business. I want people to be happy, that is all. But I would still like to point out that there are many people in the humanities who would be happy in business if they ever tried. Instead, they keep struggling with their careers in academia. Even if they plan on leaving academia soon, they struggle with daily life in the PRESENT.

What I am saying is that these young scholars are part of Germany’s ELITE. They are the most highly educated amongst us. Yes, “educated” in this sense refers to academic standards only, that is right. And no, I am not saying that this means they are the most intelligent or most capable in our country. There is a difference, of course. Still, I would like to point out that getting a Ph.D. is NOT a piece of cake and I would also like to have the “public” — including practitioners in business — acknowledge this. Well, they implicitly do acknowledge this because they keep trying to buy Ph.D. titles which, right? This shows that there seems to be some brain and time needed to do this the legal way which they obviously lack.

The part that I am sad about is that many of these highly talented, smart, and socially capable people are leaving academia and they never enter business. This means that they end up somewhere “in-between.” As a bystander and observer, I personally understand that. Again, I encourage people to do anything that makes them happy. However, this usually means that people stay away from the crucially important leadership positions in the country. And there is no end of this vicious cycle in sight as far as I can see.

As Herles writes about the quota for women in leadership positions, I wonder if we need a quota for more brain in business. If that were introduced, we would get more humanities folks to become part of crucial decision-making processes, including people who found their own businesses. Certainly, I am writing about the German position here. There are slight differences around the world. Most notable is the fact that some outstanding business leaders with a degree in the humanities are found in the U.S. where the liberal arts are still a little more common than in Germany. It is also interesting to see that history and psychology are mentioned in the statistics under the heading “humanities” (Mahroum and Ansari). The thing is: Psychology is NOT a humanities subject in most universities — it is located in the social sciences and studied with empirical research methods.

The latter finding is something that really fuels my energy to contribute even more actively to the communication between academia, business, and society: People have NO CLUE what the humanities actually are and do! This is what we need to fix first. People know what you do in business, what you do in politics, you might even know now what virologists do in their main occupation as scientists. But nobody has a clue what a literary studies scholar does and what he/she could potentially contribute to the business world, or someone in linguistics, or in ethnology or theater studies.

Still, we also need to fix a lot inside the Ivory Tower. The “broken elite” is a reality in academia. People who suffer and hate every single day of sitting alone in their room or in the library, reading books, writing papers, getting little or no appreciation by anybody, including their professors. This is the elite that we need to worry about, no matter where they decide to work after getting their Master’s, Ph.D., or even habilitation. I am not a pessimist by any means but it is a shame what you get to see as an insider of the higher education system. And I appeal to everyone in responsible positions in universities to use his/her decision-making space to bring about change to the better. If you do not do so for whatever reason,

YOU are breaking the elite.

Reflection Questions

1) What do you associate with the term “elite”?

2) Are you part of an elite? In which field/community/environment?

3) Did you ever feel “broken” by a system? Which advice can you pass on to others on how to overcome this situation?