The Colonel Cathcarts

Colonel Cathcart is a character in Heller's novel Catch-22. The book is about an American bomber group in Italy during the Second World War. Cathcart is a group commander who wants to be a general. To his achieve his ambition is willing to do almost anything, including entirely ignoring the welfare of his own men and the military objectives of his own country.

He thinks of everything in terms of “feathers in his cap” or “black eyes”. A “feather in his cap” is anything that he does that he thinks will be looked on favorably by his superiors and might further his ambitions. A “black eye” is anything that he thinks might earn him criticism.

It doesn't matter to Colonel Cathcart whether what he is doing is right or wrong, just whether it produces a feather or a black eye. He doesn't care whether he does a good job. He doesn't care whether he is behaving in a moral fashion. He doesn't even care whether what he does is militarily correct. All he cares about is a feather or a black eye. He finds out what will look good and does it. It doesn't matter if it is the right thing to do. Anything that doesn't produce a feather can be neglected. Anything that might produce criticism or controversy, and therefore a black eye, must be avoided like the plague.

Colonel Cathcart is the ultimate wannabe. As such he is a personality stereotype. I'm sure you know some Colonel Cathcarts. I certainly do. I work with several of them. Such people are deadly to the welfare of their organisations. Unfortunately, in the less perceptive organisation, rather than being expelled, they are often promoted. In a business the market ultimately corrects such mistakes and forces the organization to expel its Colonel Cathcarts. In the public sector the market cannot exercise such checks and the Colonel Cathcarts can thrive.

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