Adam Smith and Ostentatious Avidity in Project Management

Filed under Grab Bag | Posted by PMStudent
Adam Smith - by surfstyle via Flickr

Adam Smith - by surfstyle via Flickr

Among my interests outside of project management are economics and philosophy. ?Upon taking a break from project management and studying The Theory of Moral Sentiments (6th edition) by Adam Smith (1723-1790) I made a correlation to share with you, and get your take.

I’ll quote Smith here, give my interpretation, and talk a little about how the heck I tied this into project management.

From The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Part I, Section III, Chapter III

“… ?To deserve, to acquire, and to enjoy the respect and admiration of mankind, are the great objects of ambition and emulation. Two different roads are presented to us, equally leading to the attainment of this so much desired object; the one, by the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue; the other, by the acquisition of wealth and greatness. Two different characters are presented to our emulation; the one, of proud ambition and ostentatious avidity. the other, of humble modesty and equitable justice. Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behaviour; the one more gaudy and glittering in its colouring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline: the one forcing itself upon the notice of every wandering eye; the other, attracting the attention of scarce any body but the most studious and careful observer. They are the wise and the virtuous chiefly, a select, though, I am afraid, but a small party, who are the real and steady admirers of wisdom and virtue. The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers, and, what may seem more extraordinary, most frequently the disinterested admirers and worshippers, of wealth and greatness.”

The Theory of Moral Sentiments (6th edition)
Adam Smith 1723-1790
Part I, Section III, Chapter III
“… ?To deserve, to acquire, and to enjoy the respect and admiration of mankind, are the great objects of ambition and emulation. Two different roads are presented to us, equally leading to the attainment of this so much desired object; the one, by the study of wisdom and the practice of virtue; the other, by the acquisition of wealth and greatness. Two different characters are presented to our emulation; the one, of proud ambition and ostentatious avidity. the other, of humble modesty and equitable justice. Two different models, two different pictures, are held out to us, according to which we may fashion our own character and behaviour; the one more gaudy and glittering in its colouring; the other more correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline: the one forcing itself upon the notice of every wandering eye; the other, attracting the attention of scarce any body but the most studious and careful observer. They are the wise and the virtuous chiefly, a select, though, I am afraid, but a small party, who are the real and steady admirers of wisdom and virtue. The great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers, and, what may seem more extraordinary, most frequently the disinterested admirers and worshippers, of wealth and greatness.”

My Breakdown

Smith points out 2 paths that can be taken in the pursuit of respect by others. ?He laments that those who follow the first path languish in relative obscurity whereas “the great mob of mankind are the admirers and worshippers” of those who follow the second path. ?It is obvious to me that Smith saw himself as having followed the path of the wise, and was expressing some resentment over the famous and admired who, in his view, had produced no great works or benefit to be deserving of such status.

Path of the Wise

  • study of wisdom and practice of virtue
  • humble modesty and equitable justice
  • correct and more exquisitely beautiful in its outline
  • attracting the attention of scarce any body but the most studious and careful observer.

Path of the Ambitious

  • acquisition of wealth and greatness
  • proud ambition and ostentatious avidity
  • gaudy and glittering in its colouring
  • forcing itself upon the notice of every wandering eye

Of Managing Projects and People

Although Smith was speaking of rank and respect in terms of culture and wealth, I found a parallel in the realm of project and people management.

Seeking credit and attention as a project manager is counterproductive in my opinion.? The best managers (project or functional) I’ve known focus on getting results from their teams, and over delivering to customers and stakeholders.? A huge component of this is gaining trust from the teams and empowering them to do great work.

Ostentatious Avidity - by rappensuncle via Flickr

Ostentatious Avidity - by rappensuncle via Flickr

When a manager doesn’t strive to give (true) credit to her/his team whenever possible, that trust is degraded.? I had a project manager who would speak in status meetings and elsewhere in terms of what they did, or just said “we did this.”? I’ve probably had many actually, but one in particular stood out for me.

Instead, it would have been great if they had pointed out individuals, especially when some of the team members (like me) were sitting in the room.? “Josh and Jack did a fantastic job on [abc] and designed it with foresight so this other task down the line should be much easier because they can just build on [abc]’s functionality!”

That was a subtle example, but we’ve all known managers who seem to always be “brown nosing” and trying to steal limelight whenever they can.? People distrust these managers and have much less reason to excel.

What are your experiences with this?? Do you agree or disagree with me?? Leave a comment below!

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