MacLeod’s Company Hierarchy And The Corporate Conscious

This is picture of Hugh MacLeod’s interpretation of a company hierarchy.  It’s accuracy breeds sadness.  Once the hierarchy is understood, it becomes clear why most large companies end up as the same sad soul-crushing environment. It turns out, the standard corporate environment isn’t due to poor  or evil leadership – it’s just an undeniable process.

Let’s dig into an interpretation of the cartoon, then we can circle back to see if there’s a happy place inside a corporation for the brave new life.

The Process

At the birth of a new company, the founding entrepreneur has visions of money, power, and prestige – combined with just enough ego and arrogance (or maybe just confidence) to take the plunge into entrepreneurship. Of course, this is a generalization, but I think it’s accurate in most situations, and in the end I believe it doesn’t much matter (more on that below). As I said, this is an undeniable process.  As the company begins to see success, the ego of the entrepreneur is fed, and greed is likely to take over. Eventually, the Corporate Sociopath is bred.

Corporate Sociopath (noun) - A person whose professional behavior lacks morality, and whose actions use manipulation and game-planning in order to achieve money, power, and prestige.

Of course, not all company owners will become corporate sociopaths, but this doesn’t matter.  If the owner is not a sociopath (making him either a clueless or a loser in the MacLeod’s trichotomy), then eventually a sociopath will gain control.  It might happen through a buy-out, or through manipulation – but it is destined to eventually happen.  The Sociopath is like an athlete on performance enhancing drugs, determined to win at any cost – and willing to do whatever it takes.  The Sociopath is willing to use manipulation and undermining techniques to gain control, and is persistent with his intents.

Now let’s back up in time a bit…  While the company is growing, it needs employees. This is where the Corporate Losers come in.

Corporate Loser (noun) - A person who is competent with their work and shows professional morality and integrity, and is aware of the lacking morality in corporate leadership (Corporate Sociopaths). Corporate losers do not have loyalty to their company since they are aware of how disloyal the company is to them, however they rarely leave soul-crushing employment because of self-instilled fear, laziness, or lack of creativity.

The Corporate Losers are quite aware of how the sociopaths are benefiting from the losers’ hard work and ingenuity, all-the-while only receiving small raises and plastic plaques of praise for their efforts. Over time, they begin to challenge the leadership of the sociopaths, so the leadership needs a shield. This is where the Corporate Clueless come in.

Corporate Clueless (noun) - 1. A person who is loyal to their company, completely unaware of how disloyal the company is to them. The corporate clueless person will always follow management directions, honored to even get the attention of their sociopathic leadership. The Clueless create a communication and hierarchical gap between the sociopaths and the losers, and also can be  easily manipulated to be the fall guy for the sociopath when things go wrong.

The Corporate Clueless are enablers for the sociopaths on two fronts:

  1. First, as the scapegoat, they allow the sociopaths to take risks for the business while incurring no personal risk because they have a corporate clueless person to act as the fall guy.  One such obvious use of the scapegoat is the creation of a small task force to initiate some risky change to the bureaucracy. In this scenario, you’ll see an “executive sponsor” (Sociopath) who creates the team and gives “recommendations” on the outcome, then assigns a “task force leader” (Clueless).  Of course, the Sociopath controls the outcome.  If the outcome is successful, the Clueless “team leader” gets a plaque and public recognition, while the Sociopath gets a 7-figure bonus. If the outcome is failure, the Clueless gets blamed of incompetence with no real punishment (after all, he will be needed again), the Corporate Losers get some new token bureaucratic process improvement plan institutionalized.  Most importantly, when the new initiative fails, the Corporate Sociopath faces no punishment at all.

  1. Second, the Corporate Clueless create an important shield between the Losers and the Sociopaths. The Sociopaths always want more (eg. ideas, designs, efficiency, hours logged, etc) for less. The Losers are aware of this, and it makes them angry – almost enough to leave the company.  This is no good for the Sociopaths end goals (bigger bonuses), but fortunately for them they have the Clueless layer of management to shield them.  The Losers are angry, but all they can do is complain to the Clueless – who the Losers know to be incompetent.  And how can the Losers be angry at someone who is doing their best, but just happens to be incompetent.  After all, there is no ill-will by the Clueless… Sigh…


Once this hierarchy is set up (by no divine plan, but instead an undeniable process), the corporation runs smoothly as an entity, despite the frustrations of most of the employees. The Sociopaths are able to take risks for the corporation without incurring professional risks – and if most of the risks are wise then the company can succeed. The Clueless and Losers benefit from this success (although they get less of a share of the benefits than they would like), and everyone maintains employment.  It’s actually a pretty sustainable ecosystem, despite all the negatives.


* This is probably a good time to defend the naming convention of our three antagonists. Sociopath, Clueless, and Loser obviously all have negative connotations. I’m using these terms, primarily, to stay true to the MacLeod Company Hierarchy graphic. But they should not be judged negatively as all evil or derogatory terms, but instead I wish to just view them as personality types in respect to how the individuals act within the corporate environment. The three titles could also be called “confident leader”, “extreme loyalist”, and “moral hard worker.” This would be completely accurate and would remove the negative titles, but for the sake of this article I’m going to keep the original titles.


** This is probably also a good time to admit that prior to my Brave New Life metamorphosis, I was a corporate sociopath.  I viewed my job as a game, with the goal to keep moving up and gaining more power and money.  While I never threw people under the metaphorical bus, I did take shortcuts, use others to my advantage through manipulation, and take more credit where I probably should have passed it on. Since I viewed employment and my career as only a game, I never felt guilt for any of this (no more than one might feel guilty for shooting an enemy in a video game – which I realize might sound ridiculous to may, but that just shows how the Corporate Sociopath thinks!).  Ultimately, I was rewarded with a fast track to executive leadership (a path I left mid-stride when I became more conscious of my life and priorities).


So What Do You Do If You Don’t Want To Be Part Of The Pyramid?

While I plan to retire soon at a young age and drop out of MacLeod’s Company Hierarchy, I’m fully aware that not everyone is within a few months of retirement.  Even if you’re saving at a reasonably high rate, you still may have many years of work to do, and it doesn’t have to be miserable.

So I wish to posit to you a 4th personality to the MacLeod hierarchy: The Corporate Conscious.

Corporate Conscious (noun) - A person capable of leadership and ingenuity, capable of taking risks with the awareness and acceptance of the potential failure, compassionate towards superiors, peers, and underlings. This person is aware and conscious of the business and politics of the world around them, and capable of using this awareness when the outcome is profitable and moral. Most important, this person is conscious of the fact that the company needs him (or her) more than he (or she) needs the the company.

Let’s pick apart the particulars of the Corporate Conscious.


1. A person capable of leadership and ingenuity, capable of taking risks with the awareness and acceptance of the potential failure

In other words, the Corporate Conscious (CC) is capable of competent leadership.  As a conscious person, the CC can relate to each person that they are leading, and can lead by example, by motivation, by inspiration, or by logical arument – whatever is necessary given the situation and the team’s (or individual’s) personality. The CC is also not afraid to take calculated risks, knowing that if the odds are in their favor that it’s better to fail occasionally than never at all.  With these traits, the CC is capable of both entrepreneurship, as well as formal leadership.


2. compassionate towards superiors, peers, and underlings

The CC is a compassionate person.  This further strengthens the leadership qualities described above when dealing with underlings, and even peers. Additionally, the compassion displayed towards superiors (usually Sociopaths) shows empathy towards the tough decisions leaders must make for the good of the company.  This makes “fitting in” easier at all levels.


3. This person is aware and conscious of the business and politics of the world around them, capable of using this awareness when the outcome is profitable and moral

The CC is no fool.  He is aware that the majority of the people in power are the Corporate Sociopaths, and not fellow CC’s.   But he’s also aware that he doesn’t need to join in on the immorality and he doesn’t need to make decisions that benefit himself at the cost of others, but rather he can use his strengths of total metaphysical awareness to gain the same positive outcome without compromising his morality.  He is also capable of the use of politics (which, by the way, are not inherently bad as the Losers will proclaim) but he recognizes that they are only bad because they are so often used with unethical or immoral intents (Sociopath’s gain).


4. Most important, this person is conscious of the fact that the company needs him (or her) more than he (or she) needs the the company.

As I said above, the CC is no fool.  Only a fool believes a company has loyalty.  Individuals may have loyalty, but the entity of a corporation is not a person (despite some tax laws that argue otherwise) and it does NOT have loyalty.  That doesn’t mean corporations are inherently evil, just that they will always struggle to stay afloat, which sometimes means throwing perceived dead weight overboard.  And sometimes this dead weight is you or me.

By recognizing this lack of loyalty by the company, the CC shows no loyalty in return.  That doesn’t mean he will jump ship every 6 months, it just means that he knows his value as an intelligent hard worker that the company needs more than he needs it, and therefore is willing to take actions that are sometimes risky, that may not be consistent with what the Sociopath desires, and might be downright mutinous at times.  In the end, this is rewarding in itself and rarely has a negative outcome.


Worker bees can leave.
Even drones can fly away.
The Queen is their slave.



-Chuck Palahniuk, Fight Club


I wish to draw two conclusions with the observations above:


First, too much attention is drawn towards early retirement and financial independence (I have been guilty of this), but I believe both of these achievements are points along a spectrum. By saving at a high rate, let’s say 50%, you are building up courage to be a Corporate Conscious.  Each month you save at 50%, you give yourself a month of buffer for unemployment. Build up enough buffer, and you can confidently be a CC without fear.  Of course, this buffer is not necessary to be a Corporate Conscious, but it provides confidence to go against the grain (this was true in my case, anyways).


Second, MacLeod’s company hierarchy is mostly true, despite it being such a sad and hopeless picture.  But, there is an alternative and it starts with people like you and me who are willing to escape the unconsciousness of the three positions within his hierarchy and transcend them into Consciousness.  I’ve personally done this, and it works, even in a huge, old, technical corporation with sociopathic leadership, layers of Clueless middle management, and a soulless and sad layer of Loser employees.  If it can be done there, it can be done anywhere.


23 Responses to MacLeod’s Company Hierarchy And The Corporate Conscious

  1. icebiker76 says:

    Its like you know where i work?!? Passing this excellent commentary around to a few friends. :)

  2. Well put! I used to work for a cell phone companies customer service call center and this was exactly the hierarchy. I was a corporate loser and hated all the ways the sociopaths controlled us from on high. This feeling was multiplied by the fact the sociopaths were in a completely different city from our center and orders were just emailed in and to be carried out by the clueless.

    I’m in education now which I feel has a different hierarchy (at least here in Japan) and just started to build my buffer. It really makes a difference knowing I don’t need these guys as much as they need me.

    Thanks for always summing up my thoughts so succinctly.

  3. I have transitioned from Number 4 to Number 3. That means I don’t care any longer about my office and what happens. I only care about me.

    I’m surprised at how accurate these descriptions are, as I see them where I work. Number 4 seems like a compromise between the Loser and Clueless. Was this created simply out of a spirit of compromise?

    • Heh heh, that sounds familiar. It’s too bad that most companies are this way. I think it’s the drive to please the executives and share holders that cause this.
      I believe many privately owned operations are still a nice place to work and avoided this crazy pyramid.

  4. mikeBOS says:

    I agree with your basic hierarchy assessment.

    But I disagree that a 4th type, the Corporate Conscious, is really possible. I just don’t see how he can compete with the sociopath who is willing to do anything to undercut him.

    While it seems likely to me those Corporate Conscious people exist. – Newly minted MBA’s or young people with stars in their eyes who really want to build a better, more efficient company, for example. But years of working with parasites who steal ideas, and spread lies about people who threaten their own position is hard to overcome.

    And what would be their motivation that keeps them going through years of being surrounded by leaches?

    Joel Spolsky, of Joel on Software, put it well once, I think. He was writing about building his own growing company. And how hiring great people, the “corporate conscious” I suppose, really helps a company grow. But if you let a sociopath slip through the cracks, and they can be VERY hard to detect, if not impossible until it’s too late, then they will advocate immediately for their own benefit and the hiring of more, less sophisticated people who don’t threaten them, rather than for more intelligent leaders who can help make the company successful.

    He put it rather succinctly, “If you hire all A people they’ll also hire A people. But if you hire B people, they’ll hire the C people and then it’s all over.”

    • Mike – I totally agree with Joel Spolsky’s perspective on building a company. In fact, that’s part of my argument in this article, that the MacLeod Hierarchy is an inevitable process. There no way to avoid ever hiring a B.

      But that’s not the point. The point is that a 4th type of person can exist within such an undesirable organization. For more details, check out the response to you and m741 below.

  5. m741 says:

    I’ve gotta agree with MikeBOS. I think that it’s all well and good to strive to be a Corporate Conscious person – and I suppose these people do exist – but I think they basically exist at the margins. A Corporate Conscious who doesn’t succeed is a Loser. And a Corporate Conscious who does succeed will likely have the traits of, and become, a Sociopath.

    As for the actual designations, I do feel that at a certain point on the corporate hierarchy, people are frequently clinically sociopaths. It makes me paranoid to talk to people in my company who manage more than 10-20 people. I don’t trust these leaders and have to be exceedingly careful what I say to them.

    As for myself, I know I’m a Loser in the hierarchy, and I don’t expect that to change in the foreseeable future. Once you’re a Loser it’s nearly impossible to become Clueless. And I suspect Sociopaths are both rare and difficult to become.

    • @m741 and @MikeBOS –

      It seems the 2 main criticisms are (1) that the CC might exist, but probably only in the margins and probably still young and naive and (2) the CC can’t compete with the sociopaths because the sociopaths have the advantage of their willingness to be unethical for their own advantage.

      Let’s look at the second argument first, that the CC can’t compete with the sociopath. I think this depends on what we’re defining as the competition, and how you measure who “wins.” If it’s to move as far up the corporate ladder and make as much money as possible, then you’re right. But I consider job and title as just two factors in the competition. There are also factors such as low stress, reduced hours, joy in having truly good relationships at work, and fulfillment in helping others grow. The CC values these things, and considers them as part of the competition.

      As an example, I was one of the people m741 doesn’t trust as a leader, since I managed 11 engineers at my previous job. But I was trustworthy – I defended my team and did what I thought was right. In my last 2 years, which were the first 2 years as a CC (in my opinion), I was constantly criticized on the surface for really dumb reasons such as the clothes I wore (jeans and t-shirts), my refusal to present status updates to a group that didn’t need to know, and for not acting as a puppet to our executives when they gave me a useless “recommendation” on some highly visible issue. And yet, I was never punished in any way because the work always got done at a high level. In fact, on my last performance review before I left I got the highest possible bonus (225% my base bonus) and a promotion that I subsequently turned down since I was planning to resign the following week. (Maybe I’m just a self-deluded sociopath?)

      As for the first argument, I agree that the CC is a rare entity – but I don’t agree that they are probably young and naive. In fact, I think the young and naive is most likely the Loser, with a potential future as a Clueless. I think you must be the opposite of naive in order to be CC – you must be fully aware of how things work and who are the Losers, the Clueless, and the Sociopaths. Once you understand this, it becomes easy to detach yourself from the fold and start operating in a way that works within the system successfully, without having to be unethical.

      And as for becoming jaded by years of the Sociopaths stealing ideas and spreading lies – this is where the awareness of the system becomes so important, and how the CC never have to return to the Loser function. If I know someone is a Sociopath, I can avoid taking their actions personally and just shrug and say – “Poor guy, he’s stuck being a Sociopath. Maybe someday he’ll become more aware of the total metaphysics of life and where our jobs and his title ranks in the grand scheme of things.”

  6. BDub says:

    Very interesting.

    When I think about my company, I see this hierarchy inside of the overall hierarchy:

    Executive staff: sociopaths
    VP: clueless
    My managing director: sociopath
    My boss: clueless
    me: loser

    I use to desire to be clueless, but it gnaws at my soul. I like the idea of the corporate conscious, but I don’t know that it can be done. I have tried to exist in this role but it has given the sociopath managing director a chance to put a target on my back. Still, he can’t afford to lose me so he has to deal with my choice to do what is right and not just say “yes sir”.

  7. mike says:

    That’s funny. I don’t recall covering mccleods hierarchy in b-school. I’m sure they went over it, I must have been gone that day.

  8. SB says:

    BNL, thanks, thanks, thanks for this excellent blog!

  9. L says:

    Very nteresting perspective. :)

    My take on your CC persona would be (and please pardon the vulgarity) — it’s easier to resist the pressures of the corporate workplace if you know you’ve built up a stash of ” f. u.” money. Meaning, you don’t _have_ to work any more, you know that on any particular day you can say to heck with it, if you like. It gives a great freedom! To include being able to do the right thing, instead of the thing you’re being pressured to do. Paradoxically, doing the right thing can lead to greater work satisfaction, and less desire to actually leave.

    But if you are tied to the workplace by debt, you don’t have the freedom to speak your mind, and satisfaction may suffer.

    • I agree. FU money has made a a huge difference for me. In my current job, we get a list of tasks each quarter that we have to complete to get our bonus. Each task is assigned a percentage, and if we don’t complete the task then we lose the corresponding percentage of our bonus.

      Many of the tasks are relevant to our *real* performance, and so I do them anyways. Others are completely asinine, and so I simply don’t do them. It’s very liberating. I think I get more pleasure out of not doing them then I would with the money.

      The really funny thing is, last quarter I got my full bonus anyways,. They made up some excuse about how I did other things so well, that it was OK that I didn’t do the tasks they asked since it didn’t hurt my performance. I see this as the second order effect of FU money. The first order is when you know you have it. The second is when your management senses you have it.

    • Also, I see FU money as a spectrum. You don’t need to be 100% financially independent. If you are out of debt and have a few years of savings, you are already in an advantageous position. Unfortunately, that’s something I didn’t realize when I was in the position, I only realized it when I reached the clarity that full FI gave me.

      • L says:

        Interesting that you got your full bonus despite not doing all the tasks. :)

        I agree about FU money as a spectrum.

        I wonder if it is possible to be a CC worker as you describe, without having FU money? I don’t know if it would be possible for me…

      • That’s a good question. It wouldn’t be possible for me either. Feeding and sheltering my family comes first, even if it meant I’d have to be a Sociopath (my natural calling).

        I tend to think that it’s possible, but unlikely given that the type of people that are that independent and idealistic don’t tend to be in the corporate environment (the classical starving artist comes to mind). Otherwise, they’d be Losers.

  10. Mike says:

    In case others have missed it, that diagram and its many corollaries have been explored in great depth here:

    Warning: it may change the way you feel about life, the universe and everything, but especially life (and especially work).

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  13. […] shine of vacation floated me through the turnstile and up the elevator. Due to the phenomenon that more-higher-managers are more-higher-demanding, I try to keep a low-profile and avoid these interactions as much as possible. Nevertheless, all of […]

  14. A says:

    I’m looking at your description of ‘confident leader’ such as your own past, and am amazed that you can square the circle that such rightly called sociopathy is not evil leadership. I don’t think you’ve made it to cc

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