Number two - and trying less

In a poll of 1,708 vice-presidents, 67 percent replied that they are content to remain vice-presidents, according to Korn/Ferry International, an ''executive-search'' firm.

''I am absolutely amazed,'' Lester Korn remarked to the editors of Industry Week, sensing perhaps what this heresy of limited ambition could do to his own business, to say nothing of the American way.

The turn-of-the-century humorist Finley Peter Dunne laid down the ground rules once and for all - supposedly. ''Th' prisidincy is th' highest office,'' he wrote. ''Th' vice-prisidincy is th' nex' highest an' th' lowest. It isn't a crime exactly. Ye can't be sint to jail f'r it, but it's a kind iv a disgrace.''

What does this landslide vote in favor of being an also-ran mean? One shudders to think.

Have Americans given up on their old goddess, Success?

Are the vice-presidents casting their vote for private lives over corporate careers?

Do they want to be Nice Guys first, even if it means finishing last? Well, practically last.

Will Fortune magazine have to change its name to Small Fortune?

We do not pretend to have the answers to all these questions, though, unlike Mr. Korn, we are not amazed at this new vogue for being runner-up. Who would want to be number one if it means mostly being number one target for criticism, as of the spring of '82?

In another magazine, Dun's Business Month, there is another poll. ''What's Wrong With Management?'' the editors asked 230 chief executives, getting right to the point, you must admit. The exact figure is not given, but a ''thumping majority'' of presidents and chairmen are crying ''Mea culpa! My fault!'' in every language, except, of course, Japanese.

The number one fellows ''should own up to their part in the dismal record of American productivity,'' the unnamed president of an unnamed utility company told Business Month.

''I am no genius,'' confessed Bruce Smart, number one man of Continental Group Inc., claiming first place only in humility.

''Autocratic management is passe,'' declared the ex-autocrat of Sperry Corporation, its chairman, J. Paul Lyet.

The fact is, the presidents don't seem much more enthusiastic about being president than the vice-presidents.

''Participative decision-making'' is the new catch phrase that surfaces in these surveys, as if the number one men had inserted a ''never'' in the middle of those little signs on their desks that used to read: ''The buck stops here.''

Call us Horatio Alger, but we are inclined to avert our eyes from the spectacle of vice-presidents begging out of the president's job while the presidents, in turn, modestly signal ''First place is all yours!'' to Japan's chief executives.

We don't want to be president - not on your life! - but somehow we want the presidents, and the vice-presidents, to want to be.

Still, if anybody plans to write a guidebook titled ''Not Winning Is Everything'' - and the project would appear imminent - we have a couple of tips based on years of experience.

In the first place, let's not become quite as absolute about losing as we've been about winning. Some very un-Nice Guys finish last as well as first. Losing does not automatically make you wise or improve your character.

Besides, everybody has to be number one in some area. Very few people, for instance, want to be second-most-beloved husband or wife.

At the risk of sounding like a vice-president in charge of moralizing, we say: ''Presidents, vice-presidents, and the small number of the rest of you left out there, aim for excellence, and you'll be number one in our book.''

We hope that's what the presidents mean when they talk about concentrating on ''long-term goals'' rather than ''short-term profits.'' But when a president speaks from on high you can never be quite sure what he means, as every vice-president will tell you.

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