>Of Eminence and Grease

Quick question: who is the most influential person in a typical company? Hint: it’s not the boss. It’s not the owner (unless the company is very small). It’s probably not you, because the people who read this blog are mostly not into the whole making friends and influencing people thing, and people tend not to want to employ subordinates who are smarter than they are.

If you look closely, you’ll find the real power usually lies with the boss’s secretary (or personal assistant, or whatever they call it). If there’s no-one who formally fills that role, look for someone who talks to pretty much everyone and who everyone goes to for the news about anything. There’ll be one who the boss listens to. And if you’re employed in that company, do not, under any circumstances, piss that person off.

It’s pretty simple if you know what to look for, and it happens wherever there’s a power structure that’s too big for the person at the top to follow (or there’s too much information out there). The CEO, or President, or King, or Lord High Thingamajig ends up with someone filtering out all the little things that someone else can handle, and passing on the important stuff.

A gatekeeper, in other words. If the King never sees your petition for justice, he’s not going to grant it. And if the boss never sees your wonderful work, he’s not going to reward it. Same principle, similar results. From such are bureaucracies born…

This is where the grease comes in. If you can’t convince the gatekeeper on the merits of your situation, there’s a long, long history of convincing the gatekeeper by means of a little palm-greasing. Leading to those that have getting more while those that don’t have get less, since the noble with the biggest purse can afford the best bribes and get little things like laws adjusted to his favor (side note of trivia: privilege is derived from the Latin for ‘private law’. There really are two sets of law, one for the super-wealthy and one for everyone else). Uncorruptibles are few and far between, and usually won’t be found working for any government of any color.

Even so, eventually the gatekeeper’s load gets too much, so he acquires a set of advisors/assistants. Enter the beginnings of a bureaucracy that’s founded on keeping people away from the top, not “serving” the populace.

Yes, I’m cynical. The thing about bureaucracies is that as long as they exist, they’re important in all the wrong ways. Never piss one off – it’s not possible to go through life without dealing with them, and angry bureaucrats have all sorts of untrackable ways to take revenge. Files get ‘lost’. Or end up on the bottom of the queue. Or some obscure rule no-one’s ever heard of before applies to you. You can run into this even without upsetting one of them: all it takes is a body of law so complex it has cracks and the misfortune to fall into one.

And grease applied to the eminence is the way around the entire mess – worse, it tastes lousy, even with ketchup. I think it might even be one of those universal truths.

p.s. For those who are wondering, this whole post is born from a bit of punnage involving the term ‘eminence grise‘. Personally, I prefer greasy eminence.


  1. >"Bureaucracy" – literally, "government by desks". Small-souled people, who have each risen to rule their own little hills … In boot camp, young Sailors are warned to *never* run afoul of personnelmen, cooks, and postal clerks.

  2. >Stephen,Oh yes, absolutely. The professional desk jockeys are the worst. Now imagine what you can do to your main character when they've got all that up against them…

  3. >Oh, yes, I have. The chapters you already have, which I strongly suspect you haven't even remotely had time to *think* about, much less consider actually opening … and I fully understand that, from all that you've said … in Volume Two, they'll escort the Princess back to the capital, after Volume One ends with the news that the King has been assassinated. A whole volume spent navigating the backstabbing, infighting, internecine deviltry of the high Court …

  4. >Stephen,That's not going to be a fun book – at least, not for the Princess. I suspect there's a reason that the Chinese version of Hell is a bureaucracy.

  5. >Well, it gets complicated … the Privy Council member who unintentionally facilitated the assassin's access to the royal chambers in exchange for his own decidedly unsavory schemes has some water-muddying to do, you see … and there are quite a number of nobles who see themselves as infinitely more suitable candidates for the Crown than this mere slip of a girl who happened to have chosen the right (or wrong, depending on perspective) parents … all while the kingdom is under attack from (at least) two external enemies …

  6. >An intriguing note was that the RCA official personnel rating form (in the mid 1980s) included a rating for "Ability to go around the system" (forgive me, I've forgotten the exact wording). There were those who commented on the oddness of a system that rewarded bypassing it…

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