There exists a firm with only two employees, an artisan and a seller. The artisan is a master cordwainer, maker of fine leather footwear. Starting with tanned calfskins and leather soles, he puts everything together by hand. As the artisan crafts oxfords and derbies, the seller builds relationships with the proprietors of high end boutiques, where the shoes will be sold. He curates a website and conducts interviews with the press to build interest. He ensures that the shoes reach the right stores through the right channels, and that customers are satisfied with the product.
There is almost no overlap between the duties of the artisan and the duties of the seller. Sure, they are broadly familiar with what the other does. But both men are essential, and neither one can do the other’s job. Because their roles are so focused, they have become experts at their own craft.
Each man is quick to admit how inept he is at the other’s job. And it’s a point of pride for them, because each man is confident in the other man’s expertise. Each man is humble, because he recognizes that the other is indispensable. He has great respect for his colleague, because he cannot reproduce his craft. He rarely runs strategic decisions by the other, because his decisions in his own domain are trusted. If it ever came to it, the artisan, as the origin of the shoes, has final authority; the seller’s skills are broadly transferable to another cordwainer, or even another craft entirely – his transience means lets him choose a creator whose vision he endorses. But there is little acrimony and much mutual dependence and devolution.
To be sure, there are aspects of the job that they don’t like. But there is no squabbling about who will clean the workshop or who will deal with angry customers – it’s obvious who must do what. If ever there is a question, it’s quickly settled, because this division of roles has been so successful in the past; they are anxious to restore order and assign obligations to one man or the other. Sovereignty and responsibility are in a fine balance, and each man’s creative freedom is maximized.
There exists another cordwaining duo, where both men fill both roles, of artisan and seller. In theory, this should be an efficient setup – when orders climb too high, both men will make shoes to meet the demand; at trade fairs, both will canvas the room to drum up business for their firm.
The reality is not so rosy. They bicker incessantly over the right designs, over which direction to take the product. One wants to go avant-garde, and the other wants to go traditional. One wants to sell in low volume at high end stores, while the other wants to go in a more mass-market direction, and even outsource some of the work. Each one is involved in deciding, with each decision made by committee. From design to manufacture to distribution, every aspect of the business is a cause for dispute.
If their enterprise had corporate overlords, those overlords might decide to lay off one of the men, to cut off a head on a two-headed snake as it were. The product would still get made and sold with just one man on the payroll, after all. His sameness makes him eminently disposable, leading him to bemoan in quiet the ‘disposability of men.’ He knows he is interchangeable, and it corrodes his confidence. Superfluity erodes his humanity, and he succumbs to ennui. Each man thinks to himself, “I do all the real work.” That “the business would be so much better off if I had all the power.” “My partner is good for nothing – I don’t even need a partner!”
Yet each man is secretly scared of settling into a distinct role. He fears he will fail, so he contents himself with indecision, with a foot on each side; whenever he fails at one role, he tells himself his true prowess lies in the other, a little shell game he plays in his mind.
Each man is emasculated and encroached upon by the other, and feels he has many obligations but few freedoms. The men constantly undermine one another. And it is precisely their sameness that makes them chafe at and despise one another. Yet each secretly wishes the other would seize control, and take responsibility for the future of the firm. Yet when presented with the prospect of division of roles, both come together and snarl in disdain, confident that complementarity is a fate worse than death.