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What is a meritocracy?

Lord Michael Young was a British sociologist who is probably best known for writing a long essay called The Rise of the Meritocracy in 1958. In it, he argued that a good education would come to define those who were successful in life. Over the years, the word ‘meritocracy’ (which he coined) gained significant political clout and was often cited as a kind of social idea by various Prime Ministers, Presidents and statesmen. It became synonymous with justice and equality. After all, how could a society be any fairer than one based on individual merit?

What really frustrated Young was that as the term grew in usage and popularity it got farther and farther away from its original meaning. What most people didn’t realize was that in his essay he argued that a meritocracy was effectively a corrupt way to structure society, because it rewarded those who could afford the best educations for their children and disenfranchised those who historically couldn’t. What was worse, that under a so-called meritocratic system those who were successful tended to believe that they had got there on individual merit rather than through a system which had treated them favourably from birth.

So as Young saw it, meritocracy is kind of dangerous. We have been considering this recently in relation to the senior leadership roles we handle for our clients. What no one wants, of course, is to see old boy networks perpetuating themselves. That said, it’s naïve to pretend that knowing the right people is anything but extremely useful in life. It’s true that corporate board appointments have sometimes been made on a who-you-know basis, but in recent years there is more pressure on boards to become more diverse and transparent. The system is increasingly rewarding merit as defined by ‘outstanding contribution’ rather than who you play golf with.

Whatever the true definition of a meritocracy is, in our experience CEOs and other senior leaders tend to be in the big jobs because fundamentally they are very good at what they do. They run companies well and profitably and get rewarded for that. Perhaps they are particularly good at political manoeuvring, or their charm and eloquence stems from an expensive private education.  But we deal with many such individuals in the course of our business and it’s our belief that that will take you only so far. The ones who excel, the ones who get to the top, have wanted it badly and outperformed their competitors through hard work, talent and single-mindedness.

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