The head hunters

It may reassure (or disappoint) my readers to learn that my title does not indicate an essay on adventures and escapes in primitive lands. Rather it refers to the consulting firms that occupy themselves with finding men and women to take high posts in the corporate or university worlds. It seems that someone is always resigning or, by polite means, being fired. To replace such a one is not an easy task. You can no longer pick up a phone and ask a friend whether he is free and would like a new job. Instead, a systematic search is organized. Documentation is collected, references are explored, and after many months the list of candidates is narrowed down to half a dozen names or less. Then begins the making of a final choice, a process accompanied by the consumption of much good food and hours of intimate discussion.

I have recently been a participant in such a search. It is not that my own head is wanted by anyone (heaven forbid!), but that I have been on a committee looking for a new college president. We have not found him (or her) yet, but the pursuit has been invigorating. My fellow board members and I are still in the euphoric state where it seems possible that the end result will be a combination of Woodrow Wilson, Charles W. Eliot and Alvin Johnson. Meanwhile our professional head hunter leads us through the quagmire with optimism and guides our deliberations with efficiency and skill.

The experience has led me to reflect upon my own career and on the numerous job changes it has involved. It is, I regret to say, the kind of career I hold up before my sons as a warning and not an example. Certainly it is one that would be the despair of any head hunter. For I have not only changed jobs every decade or so but have shifted my whole field of endeavor. Moreover I can still think of several fields I would like to enter if given the time. I started out as a college professor, and then as a small-town newspaper editor wanting to emulate William Allen White. But I got lured into big-city journalism and then to the head of a foundation, and on down to Washington with President Kennedy and out into New York City's parks with John Lindsay. In the meanwhile I prided myself on being something of a farmer, and I never gave up the idea that what I was really cut out to be was a printer. I realize too late how much more respectable a figure I would be now had I stuck to one career, but I have enjoyed myself in each and even take some perverse pride in having escaped the attention of the head hunters by refusing to be typed or packaged.

What I accomplished by chance, or perhaps by aimlessness, a young friend of mine is accomplishing by foresight and determination. He started out by being a mathematical genius. Most of us, if so endowed, would remain a mathematical genius all our lives. But not he. He abandoned his rarefied realms to enter business school and is now building up a sizable nest egg. The study of law is ahead of him, and after that he will study theology. Somewhere about the age of forty he will emerge ready for his true work--except that the true work of this versatile human being will perhaps always be to study and to explore.

I am inclined to think of myself as being old-fashioned; yet I have a feeling there is something quite modern in a tendency to move unrestingly through various occupations. To stay in one place all one's working life was suited to a rigid or hierarchical society. A man could grow very expert, and sometimes even grow very wise, as the result of doing one thing faithfully. But the world today seems too open-ended for such fidelity. It also seems too complicated to be understood or mastered through the possession of any single field of knowledge. Even the young men, crowding the classrooms where computer language is being taught, must know that there are other languages their computers have not dreamed of.

The Greeks, when they had a position to fill, proceeded by drawing lots. They had never heard of head hunters, and so if they needed a university president or a captain for one of their major corporations, they gathered together a suitable number of promising young men and observed where the wheel of fortune pointed. The system worked for them, and it might work for us if more of our young people were to make a habit of changing careers and mastering diverse fields of knowledge. Then we may find our leaders in unexpected forms and uncataloged places. We shall not be looking for practiced administrators, for experts in human relations, for proven fund-raisers. We shall look for men and women of virtue, courage and philosophical wisdom. Finding them, we may have everything we need, for any job under the sun.

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