Management Lessons from Heinlein

Mar 17, 2014
13 Min Read

Robert Anson Heinlein was an influential science-fiction author who created great page-turning stories, invented a “future history” that was in some ways prescient, and had a major impact on the SF field. But, it turns out, Heinlein’s short stories and novels also have quite a few good pointers for anyone who needs to make things happen.

I went on a Heinlein re-reading spree, recently. Afterwards, it occurred to me that any manager who needs to get things done could do worse than to follow the advice offered by some of his characters.

Keep in mind: It’s silly to assume that an author’s opinions match those of his characters. However, Heinlein-the-man was an opinionated guy whose own background encompassed plenty of leadership roles. And he created opinionated characters who largely were leaders who accomplished notable things: colonizing planets, fending off aliens, and fomenting revolution. Here’s a few of my favorites.

In The Puppet Masters, for example, the protagonist works for a secret government agency, which is called upon to defend against an alien attack. Sam listens to the boss’s orders – until he disagrees strenuously and pitches a fit. Shortly thereafter the boss (the “Old Man”) listens to Sam’s opinions, explains the weakness in the suggestion, and adds, “No, Sam, you’ll have to devise a better plan.”

“I’ll have to? I just work here.”

“You did once, but now you’ve taken charge of this job.”

“Huh? What the devil are you talking about? I’m not in charge of anything – and don’t want to be. You’re the boss.”

He shook his head. “A boss is the man who does the bossing. Titles and insignia come later. ”

“I’ve never promoted you,” he went on, “because I knew that when the time came you would promote yourself. Now you’ve done it – by bucking my judgment on an important matter, forcing your own on me, and by being justified in the outcome.” [emphasis mine]

You can probably find plenty of business advice that suggests that in real life, you get a promotion after you start doing the job. That scene is one of the best ways I’ve seen anyone express it.

As is the one that follows, in which Sam learns that the Old Man was serious about passing command. Sam attends a meeting, but tries to stay out of the discussion. But, he explains, the Old Man…

…had a way of conducting a meeting, even if he is not in the chair, by looking expectantly at the one he wants to hear from. It’s a subtle trick, as the group does not know that it is being led.

But I knew. With every eye in the room on you, it is easier to voice an opinion than to keep quiet. Particularly as I found that I had opinions.

I admit it: Since I read that story, I have used that “subtle trick” in meetings rather often, myself.

Another lesson comes from Podkayne of Mars, in which the teenage Poddy, frustrated by a government-caused delay in her trip to Earth, exclaims to her uncle, “Politics! I could run it better myself!” Her uncle carefully explains that’s it’s okay to be annoyed, but:

“…So you say ‘politics!’ as if it were a nasty word—and you think that settles it.”

He sighed. “But you don’t understand. Politics is not evil; politics is the human race’s most magnificent achievement. When politics is good, it’s wonderful… and when politics is bad—well, it’s still pretty good.

“I guess I don’t understand,” I said slowly.

“Think about it. Politics is just a name for the way we get things done… without fighting. We dicker and compromise and everybody thinks he has received a raw deal, but somehow after a tedious amount of talk we come up with some jury-rigged way to do it without getting anybody’s head bashed in. That’s politics. The only other way to settle a dispute is by bashing a few heads in… and that is what happens when one or both sides is no longer willing to dicker. That’s why I say politics is good even when it is bad… because the only alternative is force – and somebody gets hurt.” [emphasis mine]

Sure, Podkayne’s uncle is talking here about larger political movements. But I have found that attitude applies just as well to corporate politics. (Or perhaps more so. Remember, Henry Kissinger said, “University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.” As I’m sure you’ve seen in your own company, people argue more over the little stuff than the big issues.)

Heinlein’s recurring character, Lazarus Long, certainly offers plenty of management advice. In Long’s first appearance in Methusaleh’s Children, in which another character asks what Long expects a meeting resolution to be, he says, “A committee is the only known form of life with a hundred bellies and no brain.” That’s an oft-quoted quip, but too often it leaves off the next line: “But presently somebody with a mind of his own will bulldoze them into accepting his plan. I don’t know what it will be.” It was an important thing for me to learn: The plan that is adopted often is not “the best” but the brain-child of the most persistent communicator.

However, the best example of leadership in Methusaleh’s Children is the government official Slayton Ford, who demonstrates a willingness to make hard decisions and to commit to them. During a crisis, “Ford knew that this would end his career,” writes Heinlein. “He would leave office in disgrace, perhaps be sent to Coventry, but he gave it no thought; he was so constituted as to be unable to weigh his personal welfare against his concept of his public duty.”

And it does cost him. Later in the story:

Once he had lost office Ford had gone straight to Huxley Field north of Novak Tower, cleared for the vacation satellite Monte Carlo, and had jumped for New Frontiers instead. Lazarus liked that. “Go for broke” took courage and character that most people didn’t have. Don’t grab a toothbrush, don’t wind the cat – just do it! [emphasis mine]

Slayton Ford is a positive role model… and he gets a happy reward, too. We have so many examples of corrupt or stupid leaders (including several presented by Heinlein) that it’s worthwhile to recognize something worth aspiring to. And the “project” of getting 100,000 people loaded on board a space ship is a bigger one than you and I have to manage. It’s still fun to read how it’s done.

From the novella “If this goes on—” (also published as Revolt in 2100), I learned a fair bit about group psychology. Our hero (who’s not too bright) is best friends with someone who ends up in the revolution’s psychometric department. “Do you seriously expect to start a rebellion with picayune stuff like that?” Lyle asks. His friend replies:

“It isn’t picayune stuff, because it acts directly on their emotions, below the logical level. You can sway a thousand men by appealing to their prejudices quicker than you can by logic. It doesn’t have to be a prejudice about an important matter, either.” [emphasis mine]

Certainly, I’ve found, it’s easiest to motivate team members when you tell them that they are right to believe as they do. And then add to that belief system with other data.

That novella also does a good job of summarizing the role of anyone who aims to be a second-in-command (and move up the corporate ranks):

I simply endeavored to keep General Huxley from being buried in pieces of paper – and found myself smothered instead. The idea was to figure out what he would do, if he had time, and do it for him. A person who has been trained in the principles of staff or doctrinal command can do this; the trick is to make your mind work like your boss’s mind in all routine matters, and to be able to recognize what is routine and what he must pass on himself.

These are just a few highlights of the real-life lessons I learned from the grand-master of science fiction. I had to stop myself, before I took on The Man Who Sold the Moon and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which I seem to recall as having additional examples it’d be fun to show you. But I’m reminded of another Heinlein quote, this one expressing his own opinion about deadlines. He famously said, “They didn’t want it good. They wanted it Wednesday.”

What tales would you have included? Tell me about them in the comments.

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