Mike Kueber's Blog

August 5, 2011

Aphorism of the Week #6 – “The squeaky wheel gets the grease”

Filed under: Aphorism — Mike Kueber @ 4:13 am
Tags: , , , ,

They say that Google has enabled us to locate any information that we desire.  But my Google research skills must be lacking because I have been unable find three of my favorite aphorisms.  Therefore, I will have to paraphrase them:

  1. Some famous Texas historian (Dobie? Webb? Bedichek?) said about a cowboy, “He who has struggled on the trail to preserve his water is unlikely at the end of the trail to waste it away.”
  2. President Lyndon Johnson conducted a large meeting in his western White House and later
    complained about participants on the fringe of the meeting who didn’t dare speak up, but were not hesitant later to second-guess.  (Sort of a Texas version of Roosevelt’s “In the Arena.”)
  3. President Bush-41 told about being a small kid coming home from school and having his mother ask him if he had imposed on his teacher’s time, to the detriment of other kids.

I find the Bush-41 story especially fascinating because it reminds me of this week’s aphorism – “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”  I am fascinated by that aphorism because it has multiple levels.

On the simplest level, it is the admonition to quit whining and acting like a spoiled kid.  That is what I was told as a kid.  But the Bush-41 story takes it to another, more altruistic level.  His mother was teaching him to be empathetic and consider how his demands affect others.

I think, however, there is even a third level to the aphorism.  Last year, I read a book by Malcolm Gladwell titled, Outliers, and in my blog review of the book, I noted the following:

  • In my opinion, Chapter Four is the most significant.  It describes practical intelligence, as distinguished from IQ.  “Practical intelligence includes things like ‘knowing what to say to whom, knowing when to say it, and knowing how to say it for maximum effect.’  It is procedural….  It’s practical in nature: that is, it’s not knowledge for its own sake.”  Where does practical intelligence come from – unlike analytical intelligence, which comes at least in part from your genes, practical intelligence seems to come from your families.  “When we talk of the advantages of class,” we are not talking only of money and schooling, “but also because – and perhaps this is even more critical, the sense of entitlement that he has been taught is an attitude perfectly suiting to succeeding in the modern world.”  The term that I have used in the past, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.”  In contrast, individuals from lower classes offer little resistance to 2nd-class treatment and are typically easily discouraged.

With my background in the corporate world, I commonly observed this third level of entitlement.  Employees of mediocre ability, but aristocratic background, often acted like they were entitled to advance, and too often their expectations were met.  Of course, many of the supervisors were like them – i.e., mediocre aristocrats.

It’s too bad that management courses don’t describe this tendency.  If managers were aware of it, perhaps they would be able minimize it.


  1. “The squeaky wheel gets the grease.” is a perfect expression of American culture.

    The Japanese aphorism, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” expresses the precise opposite cultural message, and is a good bellweather of the essential differences between Asian and western culture.

    Comment by Anonymous — August 5, 2011 @ 3:35 pm | Reply

    • I know several Indian-Americans, and I am always struck by their lack of ego. And I mean that in a good way.

      Comment by Mike Kueber — August 6, 2011 @ 4:02 pm | Reply

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