Posted by: Brad Nixon | December 1, 2018

On the Ladder to Success: “Divide and Conquer and Leverage Synergy”

Here’s today’s hint for corporate success: When they send the guy you work for home, it’s time for you to leave, too.

Every writer knows the underlying rationale. An editor  — whatever they’re like: skilled or unskilled, competent or ignorant — MUST revise what you’ve written. Otherwise, no one will think they’re earning their keep.

In a similar vein, anyone who takes the reins of an organization with tens of thousands of employees and makes billions of dollars a year has to replace the management.

It happened to me. The old CEO left. I was suddenly part of the old guard, identified with the old boss. Meet the new boss.

I found myself reporting to a new VP. He proposed new communications programs, new approaches, couched in unfamiliar phrases.

New programs and approaches? Fine. I’m a liberal arts major, dude; right up my alley.

It was the phrases that bamboozled me.

They may have represented excellent ideas. I have no clue. I couldn’t grasp what they meant. I understood the individual words: each one a bona fide English word. But assembled as they were and applied in the contexts he used them, they kept bouncing off me, slipping away — mercurial, evanescent, refusing to be corralled or comprehended.

Looking back, that was the clue: the thing that should’ve told me it was time to skeedaddle. A barrage of incoherent stock phrases my boss and all the new bosses used. We were the corporate communications department, for crying out loud. Shouldn’t we communicate with language a bit more concise? Perhaps something that had meaning?

I wrote a few of them down, but wearied of recording gobbledegook. Besides, most of them were variations on themes already shopworn before I started my first job: teamwork, going the extra yard/mile (did these people attend college solely to play football?), innovation (don’t get me started), thinking outside the box (you mean the box you’ve put me IN?).

The one that flummoxed me — still does — was what the boss would sing out as a rallying cry when he’d describe how we — his professional team of world-class experts — would prevail in some difficult task:

“We’re going to divide and conquer.”

Some History

The original Latin phrase, divide et impera, is attributed to Philip of Macedon. Later, both Caesar and Napoleon adopted it as divide ut regnes — “divide and rule.”

One more phrase from the language of war applied to business, like innumerable others:

Luck is where preparation meets opportunity. Dwight Eisenhower
Those who are victorious plan effectively and change decisively. Sun Tzu
We will either find a way or we will make one. Hannibal

(Career coaching point: If your new boss tends to quote Sun Tzu, flee.)

“Divide and conquer” is a strategy of identifying and isolating opposing forces into the smallest possible units in order to attack and defeat them.

It’s a classic military strategy, and can work. It requires considerable knowledge and planning, as well as highly capable, disciplined and determined field unit leaders.

Turned on its head, it’s also a fundamental basis for guerrilla warfare — in which small, highly decentralized mobile units attack often-larger targets too swiftly and unpredictably to be anticipated or repelled.

Sense and Sensibility

I assume what my boss meant to say was that our dedicated team would astutely — a more trendy term would’ve been “proactively” — “attack” various carefully identified aspects “targets” as a group — Latin: ut coetus — in order to accomplish the job — whatever that was. Other current jargon might have included “leverage,” “synergy” and “integrated.”

However, something was missing. I got assignments and was expected to do them because … they were my assignments. What part of an overall plan they represented, how they meshed with work being done by others and what the overall goal was were unknown to me. I doubt that any of those things existed; I never saw them.

Instead, what he accomplished was dividing and conquering his own employees. We knew nothing, had no authority, no grasp of any plan. We had a leader with no leadership, tactics that lacked a strategy.

I was, in fact, the victim of one of the classic forms of mismanagement: mushroom management.

Mushroom Management

I occasionally worked at a racetrack when I was younger. One thing racetracks produce is prodigious amounts of horse manure. You might describe it as their gross national product. There was one guy who spent most days of the week shoveling horse manure-packed old straw out of the stables, onto a truck and hauling it a few miles south of town. Why? There was a big commercial mushroom producer there. Ideal for growing mushrooms.

Mushroom management consists of keeping your employees in the dark and feeding them horseshit.


When the people around you use language that’s patently evasive or nonsensical, don’t wait. Get out of Dodge, and don’t let the sun set on you there. Only mushrooms grow in the dark.

© Brad Nixon 2018


  1. When you mentioned horse manure, and then mushrooms, I knew exactly where you were going. That saying’s been around for a good long time, and it’s endured because it’s an expression of irrefutable truth.

    I managed to avoid corporate-speak, but I’ve done time in academic circles and, even worse, in academic theological circles. Eventually, I got out of Dodge. It’s a good thing I did.

    This fits any number of situations.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Now, see? That’s precisely the sort of thing that cannot be answered, refuted, or contravened. Once you put Calvin and Hobbes on duty, the opposition is sunk.
      And, yes, the older I got, with time spent in corporatania, I extrapolated the likelihood that things would’ve been more or less the same in academia, had I pursued that route. As for a bunch of academic theologians? Oof. Retro me.


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