Human Chameleons

Today’s topic sparked from a recent article I read online about office suckups, and let me to consider an even more insidious element of them — the chameleon.

He starts wearing ties and stops sending those PG rated e-mails around the office when the promotion opportunity is soon to open. She panders when speaking, telling each audience that they are her best. He expresses different opinions on the same subject depending on who he’s talking with. She tells her boss, “Marvelous idea!” while telling her co-workers, “The boss’ idea is terrible.” He tells his audience while running for office, “I actually voted for it before I voted against it.”

We’ve all known them, maybe worked with a few. I have. They are human chameleons.

The most skilled at this act are subtle, not overt — clever shysters who, as the old saying goes, could con you out of the lint in your pocket and convince you to buy it back for a hundred bucks. They have enough aptitude to make it seem like they have far more, enough knowledge to be dangerous. Through guile and cunning, knowing exactly what to say to please everyone along the way, they ascend through the professional ranks and attain positions of power, thereby propagating their disproportionate influence, setting an example for the aspirant that, yes, the way to succeed is by being a chameleon.

Others run their games of deception in personal life: the smooth talker who takes a different woman to bed every week, the equal opportunity seductress, the cult leader. The chameleons I have observed are a fascinating study in the flaws of humanity; yet I can’t stop being amazed the people fall for it.

I don’t resent such people as much as I pity them because of their weakness. Yes, weakness. Putting on airs, false fronts, pandering, flip-flopping one’s act, all symptomize a deep character flaw, one that goes beyond its intrinsic dishonesty to a profound lack of personal integrity.

Chameleon-like behavoir, for those astute enough to notice, conveys the message as if a neon sign lit brightly upon the forehead: “I’m too wimpy and weak to just be myself, to be honest with others about who I am, to be real instead of putting on an act. I am merely a simpering faker, a pandering weakling, an actor instead of a real person. And I don’t have enough respect for you to be honest about myself.” My respect for such people is essentially zero.

Fakers, chameleons, and flip-floppers may get away with it for some time, especially in politics or in some corporate and government hierarchies where butt kissing and “playing the part” are valued above honesty and authenticity. But eventually the chameleon is exposed — somehow, some way — and his magnificent house of cards collapses with a humiliating and irreparable implosion. Ask Ken Lay, Rick Neuheisel, Gary Hart, Jim Bakker, Bill Clinton, Pete Rose. And though they may fall the farthest, it’s not just the famous who topple when revealed. Ask the thousands of cubicle-bound Dilberts nationwide whose bosses actually are smart enough to figure out they were play-acting, and denied their promotions. [Yes, supervisors with such awareness exist, but are far too uncommon!]

The latest pop-corporate fad is training in “servant leadership.” While many of the principles are quite good indeed, such training doesn’t acknowledge the need to discover and deal with chameleons. By contrast those programs implicitly encourage chameleon behavior through their rigid insistence that everybody play nice no matter what. There’s just one flaw to that approach, but it’s a huge one: it’s dishonest. The solution is brutally simple: honesty, truth, authenticity in all things. Being nice is much better than playing nice. And sometimes, just sometimes, that is not the best answer. Heresy, you say? Who do you consider the greatest leaders of all time? Ponder their examples.

Servant leadership? Authenticity? The ultimate example for me was Jesus. Yes, he was all about loving the enemy, sacrificing self for the sake of others, helping and saving everyone who desires it. But he also knowingly pissed off people, said things he knew some folks couldn’t stand hearing, spread messages he knew would be unpopular in some quarters and which would bring down great wrath upon himself. He risked far more than most of us ever will for his honesty about his message, and paid the price in suffering and death. He was no chameleon, in any way. In today’s world I don’t believe he would don a tie and start doing showy little extras to impress either a supervisor or an election audience. And yes, he might not be promoted or elected! So be it.

See, there are times, like Jesus running the money changers out of the temple, when the best servant-leaders have to take off the kid gloves and kick some butt. Tough love. Tell it like it is.

The “play nice” chameleon thinks he’s got it made, but he really doesn’t have a clue. Ultimately, honesty and integrity are what matter.


2 Responses to “Human Chameleons”

  1. bc on February 24th, 2005 12:08 am

    Well said.

    Servant leadership, like past pop-management pap “six sigma” and “TQM”, are, on an ideal plane, worthy philosophies. Something becomes lost in the translation, however. Consider Moses…he took the tablets down from Mt. Sinai and then promptly smashed the word of God on the golden calf. In today’s culture, noble ideals such as servant leadership are smashed on the icons of butt kissing and screw your neighbor. The sycophants then pick up the shards and place them in arks, and these arks are then toted to “management retreats” where marks pay hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for the latest management technique du jour. And like religion, noble concepts like servant leadership become profane when adopted by folks interested more in doing what is best for themselves and not in doing what is best for others. What was noble becomes ignoble.

    Folks who embrace the management technique du jour miss this simple point, one stated by Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf: Do what is right, not what you think the high headquarters wants or what you think will make you look good. We should always strive to do what is *right*. It may not win popularity contests, and it may piss off a great number of people. And it may cost you your life. But you will have your honor, your dignity, and these are things worthy of an epitaph!

    Look at Christ, Gandhi, or King. Each sacrificed their lives for what they believed in. Can we say that we would do the same?

  2. ===== Roger ===== on March 3rd, 2005 4:22 am

    Likewise, bc…well said by you. All three of those people (Jesus, Ghandi, King) epitomized “servant leadership” and were murdered for it.

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