In the Pursuit of Prestige

By | December 18, 2019

[December 18, 2019]  There are a small number of social institutions in America that are a success story.  Higher education and the U.S. military dominate the upper rungs of the prestige ladder.  Both employ large numbers of people across an array of communities.  Within these institutions, we see the pursuit of prestige by many of the leaders that run those well-known and respected organizations.

Prestige, however, is one of those slippery English terms that often defies a concise definition, one that has real meaning to the average person.  That said, there is little doubt that we all desire to have it and yet, few of us ever will.  Here is what we do know about the idea of prestige: a) only a few can have it, b) it’s hard to measure, and c) it takes a long time to gain and it also takes longer to lose.

Employers and parents value a university education highly.  Society, in general, values the efforts of our military, and it shows how military personnel are treated.  Yet, universities and the Armed Forces are under pressure to be efficient and effective and are measured and compared on these qualities.  Interestingly, this efficiency-effectiveness drive runs counter to the much-sought-after prestige.

“A Flag Officer in the United States Navy gains his prestige conferred upon him by the naval institution and its history which earned its place in the American landscape by success in battle and by the sacred identity it has gained over many centuries.” – unknown U.S. Naval Admiral

There is a concern that higher education and the military are inefficient or self-serving and ill-equipped to adapt to a changing environment.  The U.S. Army has regularly received a bevy of criticisms for its costs, lack of creative thinking, unwillingness to change its traditional ways, and rigidity of execution of its mission to protect the citizens of the United States from all enemies.

What this all means is that there are senior leaders in every organization that pursue goals (the attainment of prestige being a big one) that are not always compatible with the institutional mission.  This individual motivation to attain influence should, of course, come as no surprise.

The pursuit of prestige will benefit our institutions over time.  This pursuit is for those who are motivated to climb hierarchies of competence.  Meritocracy is the fundamental baseline for measuring that allusive idea of prestige.  And, no amount of dancing around the concept by anyone will ever change human nature and convince us that prestige does not matter.

Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

21 thoughts on “In the Pursuit of Prestige

  1. Kenny Foster

    We all want to be valued. We will also go to extremes to gain credibility and prestige. I’ve seen this in minor workers trying to get “close” with the boss. Others, they believe, will see them as more important than they really are and grant them prestige. That is why so many flock to the light of power in organizations. Just being associated with senior leaders gives credence to the idea that prestige is not just in the individual but also closely tied to the institution itself.

    1. JT Patterson

      Kenny, yes and thanks for reinforcing the theme espoused by Gen. Satterfield in this article. I love these discussions, by the way. They make me think and that is something that I find hard to do. I’m too used to going with the flow of everyone else.

      1. KenFBrown

        Agreed! — and we should be very careful about it too.

    1. Janna Faulkner

      Dr. P’s reference to competence in relation to hierarchies is an observation he makes in opposition to the claim that we suffer patriarchal domination. He’s basically saying that, maybe, men sit at the top of important hierarchies because they’re competent, not just because they’re men.

  2. Jonathan B.

    “Hierarchies of competence” …. I do believe this is a topic often spoken about by Univ of Toronto Prof Jordan Peterson. Excellent point!

  3. Lynn Pitts

    As noted on several occasions in this blog and elsewhere, the higher educ institutions of the West are in decline. And, in serious dramatic decline, if you listen to many who study the phenomenon of political correctness and socialism that has been adopted by universities. We’ll see where this goes.

    1. Greg Heyman

      Spot on comment, Lynn. I too agree (with you and others) that our higher-ed institutions are in decline but also that our military (esp in the USA) is in its ascendancy.

      1. Eric Coda

        See Gen. Satterfield’s article, para 2, “c) it takes a long time to gain and it also takes longer to lose.” I will suggest that it also takes a long time to gain.

  4. apache2

    I like the unknown US Navy admiral quote. It says a lot. It also implies that to gain prestige a person must be in a respected (highly respected??) institution. The US Navy, for example, is highly respected and there is prestige for just being a member (although being a member is no easy task). Great job with this article, Gen. Satterfield. Please have a great day.

    1. Bart Rhodes

      Good point apache2 (interesting name). I too believe that we gain prestige from where we are and based upon what others have done in the past. This means that what we do today “echoes” into the future. I do believe that General Satterfield wrote about this at one time.
      … okay, found it. Here is the link:

    2. Bill Sanders, Jr.

      Yes! Thanks apache for raising the idea that we gain from those around us. Is this any different from the treasures we get when part of a strong, ethical group? Maybe yes, maybe no. Read the Bible for answers and clues.

  5. Fred Weber

    Now this is something that I can wrap my mind around. My boss at work is constantly pursuing “prestige” in his dealings with the higher-ups in our company. He doesn’t do a very good job of it but I enjoy sitting back (eating popcorn so to speak) and watching the fireworks when he fails.

    1. Max Foster

      Maybe, Fred, you should help him. Remember that leadership is something that starts with us, personally and spreads out from there. Help him see what it takes to gain responsibility first and to tell the truth and then prestige will come; takes time however.

      1. Fred Weber

        Good point, Max and thank you for the advice. I thought of it but my boss is such a pain in the ass that I usually don’t want to help him. I see that malevolent side of me is taking over.

      2. Tom Bushmaster

        Go for it, Fred, you will be more satisfied with yourself afterwards.

    2. Albert Ayer

      Too many of those over us in any organization is likely to be doing the same. Better to just be willing to work hard and have good, commonsense values based on Christianity.

      1. Eva Easterbrook

        Albert, this is so very true. Thanks for pointing it out for us. I’ve been a fan of this leadership blog by Gen. Satterfield for years. He never disappoints. I’ve managed to get several of my co-workers on here as regular readers. I always like your comments. 👍

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