[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.