Media outlets have plunged into a well of soul searching in the past week over the precise nature, meaning and whereabouts of ‘meritocracy’, following a scandal that has engulfed dozens of wealthy Americans.
On 12 March, California businessman William Rick Singer pleaded guilty in a Massachusetts court to four charges linked to two types of fraud: accepting payments to his college-entry prep firm The Key for the purpose of engaging staff to take admissions tests on behalf of clients’ offspring, and paying college athletics coaches to waive other clients’ children on to varsity teams regardless of ability. 
Singer’s operation funnelled some $25 million from affluent business leaders and celebrities into a charitable, non-profit division of his firm, which was in fact a fake business front.
Following Singer’s guilty pleas to charges of money laundering, racketeering, tax conspiracy and obstruction of justice, authorities began to charge his clients for their part in the fraud. Celebrities indicted so far include former Desperate Housewives star Felicity Huffman, who allegedly paid Singer’s firm $15,000 to guarantee her daughter a high SAT score, and actor Lori Loughlin, who allegedly handed over $500,000 in bribes to secure crew slots for her two daughters at the University of Southern California.
Loughlin has since lost her TV contract, while beauty brand Sephora has terminated its sponsorship deal with her 19-year-old social-media influencer daughter Oliva Jade.
In the storm of commentary that has erupted from what is the largest college-admissions fraud in US history, many think pieces have cast doubt over the whole concept of meritocracy – for example, The Guardian’s ‘Meritocracy is a myth invented by the rich’  and The Atlantic’s ‘A “meritocracy” is not what people think it is’. 
Indeed, The Atlantic’s piece points out that the term was coined with sarcastic intent in Michael Young’s 1958 novel The Rise of the Meritocracy 1870-2033: a sci-fi satire that imagines a dystopian future in which a rigid testing culture has merely reaffirmed all the class-based hierarchies it sought to overturn. All of which bodes ill for cosy notions of the meritocratic workplace that have become beloved cornerstones of liberal democracies.
Is meritocracy something that leaders and managers should be striving to uphold? Or is the whole term as dangerously mythical and misleading as commentators say it is?
The Institute of Leadership & Management head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “The admissions-fraud story confirms so much of what I have believed for so long. When we are confronted by these sorts of controversies, our natural reflex is to wonder exactly when life’s promised ‘level playing field’ is supposed to kick in. And what we can see from this type of fraud is that it’s very much defined at conception. If you, as a recruiting leader, are looking for the best person for the job, and you’re interviewing someone at the age of 18, 21 or 35, that person will step into the room carrying every advantage, or disadvantage, that they have accumulated up to that point in time.”
She notes: “Journalist Adrian Wooldridge spoke very powerfully about this topic at last year’s Global Peter Drucker Forum. [Ed’s note: check out Wooldridge’s comments at 36:15, 52:15 and 56:03 in this YouTube video from the Forum.] One of the main points he made was how certain cliques in the American elite – such as the Clintons and Trumps – are using the cachet of their political profiles to guarantee favourable futures for their own children. All told, Wooldridge served up a damning indictment of self-dealing within a leadership class that has become increasingly remote from the lives and concerns of those who serve it, with CEO salaries climbing to heights unimaginable to the broader workforce.”
Cooper stresses: “This story should give leaders pause to think really deeply about how they deal with underrepresented groups, given that the admissions fraud revolved so heavily around the aspirations of the overrepresented. Are we being sufficiently exacting of ourselves in terms of how we recruit? We have known for a long time that, as leaders, we tend to be far more comfortable with people who are like us than those who are not like us. Indeed, one of the main insights that emerges from our free resources on self-awareness is that we often can’t tell when we are exhibiting bias. So this is a real wake-up call for leaders to develop a greater awareness of their own biases, and to do more to counteract them.”
She adds: “It’s also a wake-up call for how we consider and approach corruption: something that we in the West are all too keen to depict as a problem that crops up elsewhere. But corruption takes many forms, and often flourishes in circles that we would typically deem worthy of admiration or acclaim. So if this scandal alone forces us to rethink how we recruit and promote people, its central lesson will have had the required effect.
“Inequality doesn’t just start at the point of an academic exam, or a job interview. It begins at conception. And all the life experiences that have led up to those so-called ‘level playing field’ moments in fact have a decisive role in tilting the terrain either for, or against, someone’s long-term prospects.”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on integrity
Image of Felicity Huffman with actor husband William H Macy courtesy of Featureflash Photo Agency, via Shutterstock
Like what you've read? Membership gives you more. Become a member.