Letters from an old railway official (second series)/Letter 5
LIMITATIONS OF THE CHIEF CLERK SYSTEM.
Tucson, Arizona, May 6, 1911.
My Dear Boy:—I have had a good deal to say to you at one time and another about chief clerks and the chief clerk system. From actual experience as a chief clerk I know that it is a trying position. It is because the railway chief clerks of the country are as a class such a splendid body of men that I am trying to do what I can to help them. Too many times a chief clerk misses promotion because he is such a valuable man that he has to stand still to break in all the new bosses who come along and leave him in the side track.
The chief clerk system as we know it today cannot long survive because it is too feudal in conception to reflect the spirit of a progressive age. We need a chief clerk to be a head clerk, a senior clerk, a foreman of the office forces, as it were. Much of the time on American railroads the chief clerk is in effect an acting official, acting trainmaster, acting superintendent, acting general manager, acting vice-president, and even acting president. As such he signs the name of his boss, the theory being that the latter, like a feudal baron or a king, is omnipresent within his own dominions. Not only does this outgrown conception violate the fundamental laws of matter; it often borders upon a breach of honor, integrity and good faith. Legal fictions are fast giving place to the law of common sense. Railway officials should not risk arraignment before the bar of public opinion for such indefensible practices.
When the chief clerk does business in the name of some one else the effect is dwarfing to all concerned. We do not get the effect of either one or two men, but that of a fraction of both. Again, the chief clerk is handling important correspondence with officials below of higher rank than himself, of greater compensation, and presumably of wider experience. Human nature is such that sooner or later the chief clerk, a junior, is telling an official, a senior, where to head in. Among the hundreds of railroad officials with whom it is my proud privilege to claim acquaintance, I have found nearly every one flattering himself, “My chief clerk never makes such breaks.” To avoid awkward and embarrassing silences, I am learning to discontinue the acid test, “How about your boss’s chief clerk?” So widespread a belief indicates a generic trait of human nature rather than a sporadic condition. Organization as a science seeks by proper checks and balances to minimize such amiable failings of human nature. Organized society preserves the effectiveness and dignity of its courts by allowing only a duly qualified judge to administer justice. The old clerk of the court may really know more law than the young judge, but only the latter can sit on the bench and decide causes. The lay reader must be duly ordained before exercising the full functions of a minister. The man who uses another’s autograph signature in the banking business becomes a malefactor. Are we so different in the large corporations that we can with impunity ignore such safeguards?
The chief clerk system had its origin when railways were small and officials were few. On a division, for example, the superintendent was perhaps the only official and by common acceptance his clerk was really the next in rank. When a small tradesman or a small farmer goes away for a day his wife and boy may do the work without any one knowing the difference. In a larger enterprise there has to be an understudy in charge when the head is away.
You may have noticed that I use the word “rank” considerably. Rank is a practical necessity for the proper enforcement of authority. Rank makes its appearance as soon as society organizes for its own protection. Rank may be local, limited, changing and temporary as contra-distinguished from general, extensive, hereditary, or permanent, but it is rank just the same. The purest democracies clothe their chosen leaders with temporary rank. Before misconstruing the poetic aphorism of Robert Burns, “rank is but the guinea’s stamp,” remember that the guinea is only fluctuating bullion until the stamp of authority of government can be invoked.
Let me now enunciate a principle, which is this: “In modern organization the chief clerk as we now know him has no place. When the stage is reached that such a chief clerk seems to be needed, there should be another assistant this or that.” Mind you, I do not say assistant to, because that little word “to” may give a sent-for-and-couldn’t-come appearance. Nearly every week you notice the announcement of the appointment of an old chief clerk to the position of assistant to somebody. This is encouraging, since it permits him to do business in his own name. It also shows that railway officials are waking up to the distinct limitations of the chief clerk system. The discouraging feature is the failure to profit by centuries of experience of such well-handled activities as the Navy and the merchant marine. At sea the executive officer ranks next below the captain and is in effect, though not in name, the latter’s chief of staff. The captain’s clerk or the purser cannot hope to become executive officer and then captain without getting outside and working up through the deck. When railway executives and directors become better students of organization, the science of human nature, their stockholders will pay for fewer unnecessary experiments. One railway profits by the discoveries and mistakes of another, as to bridges and equipment, but rarely as to organization and methods.
The United States Army, copied largely from the English, has the assistant to system, calling such officer the adjutant. The rank of the adjutant has been raised to captain, or rather the grade from which the colonel can select his adjutant has been elevated to that of captain. The adjutant has thus gained, and many military men hope that he will eventually be the lieutenant-colonel, and as in the Navy, be the executive officer, and, in effect, chief of staff for the colonel. Since no officer of the Army or Navy permits another to sign his name the adjutant uses his own autograph signature, but preceded by the phrase, “By order of Colonel Blank”; objectionable because it is sometimes a legal fiction. The adjutant system in the army works better than the assistant to system on the railroads, because the adjutant is relatively better trained for his position. Not only does the adjutant know office work, but he has learned practically to perform every duty required of non-commissioned officers and private soldiers. Very few assistants to could run a train, switch cars, handle a locomotive, or pick up a wreck. This is why soldiers and sailors have more faith in the ability of their officers than railway employes have in that of their officials. He who would be called Thor must first wield Thor’s battle axe. We should office from the railroad rather than railroad from the office.
Since these things are so, as runs the old Latin phrase, I would recruit my office assistant from the road, from the head of a so-called department, from an official who has gained a face-to-face experience in handling men. The old chief clerk is the first man I would consider for appointment as one of my junior assistants. I would so assign him that he would get outside experience. Sunburn and redness of blood sometimes go together. For the pink tea contact of the telephone, for the absent treatment of the typewriter, I would ask him for a while to substitute the strong coffee of the caboose and the surprise test of the through freight. Office railroading has its origin in the mistaken theory of overspecialization, that office work is a highly-segregated specialty beyond the ken of the average man. The world advances, and as education becomes more general, as tenure is made more permanent, and employment more attractive, we can impose increased requirements. Suppose that it all could be so worked out that a generation hence no man would expect to be a railroad clerk until he had served some such outside apprenticeship as trackman, brakeman, switchman, or fireman, etc. This would mean that in an organization like the post office department every clerk in the department in Washington would have been graduated from some such outside position as letter carrier, railway mail clerk, country postmaster, rural free delivery carrier, etc. Every clerk in the war department would be a soldier and every clerk in the navy department a sailor. Then the papers that the clerk handled would have a living meaning for him. His action would be more intelligent. Pardon me a moment while I shake hands with the highly-conventional gentleman who is approaching—Mr. Cant B. Dunn. No introduction is necessary. We have met all over the United States, in Canada and in Mexico. We usually differ, but never quarrel, because each is so necessary to the other.
Sure, my boy, all these things can’t be done right away quick, or before the Interstate Commerce Commission again asks for increased authority and larger appropriations. I do not expect to live to see the consummation, but hope that you may. I do expect to survive long enough to see a good start made along such rational lines of elasticity. Because we cannot accomplish it all at once is no reason for not making an intelligent beginning. If a compromise with principle is ever advanced its advocates should be prepared to pay the ultimate cost. Those questions on which the Federal Constitution compromised required the expensive settlement of civil war. Otherwise the Constitution has been elastic enough to cover nearly fifty states as fully as the original thirteen. It is even strong enough to withstand the latest political fallacy, the recall of the judiciary, as solemnly proposed out here in fascinating Arizona.
Remember always, my boy, that although the good old days have completed their runs, there are better days arriving and still on the road; that from beyond the terminal at the vanishing point of the perspective the best days are coming special because no railway time-table is big enough to give them running rights.
Affectionately, your own,
D. A. D.