Falling Up
By Stanley Bing

(FORTUNE Magazine) – So just when we thought Krebs was about to get a well-earned corner office in the executive-departure lounge, the guy up and gets this massive job elsewhere that pays him a gazillion dollars a year. One day he's here, about to get demoted in the latest ineffective reorganization tango, and the next he's grinning out from the business section of the paper with a new head shot, all crisp and fat-faced.

I don't blame him for beaming. The boy has every reason to be as happy as a million clams, not counting bonus and options. He's got a fresh start in a brand-new dysfunctional organization! He has, in short, fallen up instead of down. Again. It isn't the first time he's pulled this off. Nor, I am sure, will it be the last.

How did he do it? How do they all do it? How does it happen that certain individuals, throughout their careers, continue to perform with consistent, stunning mediocrity, sometimes even stupidity, failing slowly and inexorably at whatever they put their hands to, shining with a dull and insufficient glow at one job after another? And yet they always fall not down, like the rest of us, but upward, ever upward? Why, O God?

Are they smarter than the rest of us? I don't think so. At his best, Krebs was a friendly fellow who seemed out of touch with complexities. Eventually this clueless quality created a general flash of insight around here that while some doofuses are quicker, deeper, and sharper than they appear, Krebs was not--he was, in fact, a garden-variety doofus. One day it will surely be revealed in his new home as well. Unless he gets a better job first!

Are they any harder working? I don't think so. I remember this guy who used to head up our operation in the great Southwest. I'll call him Charley. He did not work, as we understand the meaning of the term. He attended meetings. He had lunch. He filled his marked parking space with a nice car every morning. Other than that, he did...nothing. Produced...nothing. It took years for us to dowse for the center of inactivity in his function--and right before he was busted for it, he was made president of a competitor. I heard the other day that he's about to leave there because since he arrived, the company has produced not one new product. I hope he doesn't come here to be my boss.

Are they more political? Maybe, although Charley did get on everybody's nerves for trying to get more credit for his nonwork than others took for their actual labor. In that regard--the subtle interplay of personalities and power that make up the machinery of daily business in a company--he was as lousy as he was at everything else. He did, however, present well. Presentation is a big part of success in politics; maybe these people are better at running for offices than they are at holding them. Could that possibly be enough to put them over the top? Doubtful.

They certainly can suck up, of course. At that skill they are, perhaps, uniquely qualified. Krebs, for example, is an inveterate tuft-hunter who will never mention the boss once if he can do so four times instead. But this doesn't really explain anything. How many suck-ups can you think of whose brownnosing has gotten them precisely nowhere? Many of them are my friends! Most are doing pretty close to what they deserve, the poor bastards.

Could it be simple, dumb luck then? Good fortune is clearly involved, since these individuals are often snatched from the jaws of defeat with scant minutes to spare. But it's not just luck. If it were, wouldn't Krebs have simply kept his elevated position here for no reason? Yet he couldn't swing that.

Besides, hanging in against all odds is another phenomenon altogether. The individuals of whom we speak fail--gloriously, publicly, utterly! And then--they fall not down as they should, but up! And still we do not know why!

Could it be...it is possible...that there is no why? That what we see here is nothing less than the hand of a laughing Fate having some cosmic joke with us? Twitting us with the true nature of existence? Reminding us that the universe is not reasonable but arbitrary? That at the heart of it all there are no answers, only questions?

I think sometimes about our former leader, Tom. He was a very strange person. He spoke rarely, and when he did no one quite understood him. When one looked in his eyes, one often saw the vacant, gassy space that swims between the stars. "How did Tom get to where he is today?" people would ask. And no one could answer. Several years ago he vaulted out of here on a rocket. Today he is on several lucrative boards and consults for top corporations, which pay him big bucks ... and for what?

Life, my friends, is a mystery. Would we have it any other way?

Don't answer that.

By day, Stanley Bing is a real executive at a real FORTUNE 500 company he'd rather not name. He can be reached at stanleybing@aol.com.