Stop making fun of the leaders

Ricky Gervais as David Brent at his office desk in a suit and tie, staring nonchalantly into the camera
Ricky Gervais as David Brent in ‘The Office’ © Alamy

I can report significant progress in my life’s central mission. Longtime readers will know that my dream is to retire without ever having managed anyone. No one succeeded in London. I have not been able to control anyone on both coasts of the United States. I’m trying to decide which Asian city I don’t want to manage one day.

What explains the reluctance? Personal taste, yes. But also the lack of status, if not the open stigma associated with British management. This is the culture that made David Brent laugh. Last year, Keir Starmer, the most likely next prime minister, called his opponent a “centrist”. Think about it. Anyone who has a junior in their workplace but is not the general manager of the organization is a kind of middle manager. That’s a lot of voters. Yet a good politician felt good about scorning them.

This disdain owes something to Marx and something to Musk. For the left, the manager is a parasite of value created by real workers, collaborating with capital. To the libertarian right raised on Ayn Rand, the manager is a “bureaucrat,” dead weight to those with vision and animal spirit. If you want cross-party applause, say the NHS needs more nurses and fewer pen pushers. Among the elite corporate professions – law, finance, consulting – the first two are vilified as ruthless. But only the third one is considered outright bullshit.

See also  Girls take report proportion of Queen’s Jubilee honours

We can take this stigma for granted. It could be said that indifference to how things were controlled and who controlled it cost Britain industrial superiority in the 19th century. We could cite the World Management Survey, which attributes most of the differences in productivity between and within countries to management. Yes, it’s hard to say ‘section manager’ or ‘department manager’ without sneers in the UK. It’s fun teasing the US as the land of joyless organizational charting and the blackmailing MBA. But the joke is on the British: in ailing companies, with lower emissions per head, in a health service that needs better functioning, not just increased funding, which is already the rich world average. England have not produced a Premier League winning manager. It’s a fact that this soccer-barmy nation is incredibly curious about.

And there you have it. No amount of politics or investment in business schools will save British management. There is actually a cultural problem. It is as old as the reluctance of Victorian industrialists to be seen near the factory lest it interfere with their social ascent. There is greatness in ownership. There is dignity in work. The level in between has to beg for its reputation. It is not clear why this should be in a nation that is developing its middle class so rapidly. But the prejudice is real. And it is expensive for the country. As long as a manager can’t tell his profession at a party without making a self-deprecating joke, talented people (and I) won’t volunteer for that role.

See also  Wheat and corn futures rise after Russia withdraws from trade deal

That’s all we can say. We can deny that managers, to quote the line about teachers, can’t. But you can go further. Even if management really is a quagmire where other people’s ideas and energy get stuck, what about it? The first goal of state or corporate bureaucracies is not to achieve positive action. This is to resist the cheerleaders. In order to protect the institutional organization from rogue elements, even at the cost of restraining one or two geniuses.

Even before Brexit, there were those who saw the public service as an inert blob, while others considered it a valuable thing. But what if it is an inert patch and therefore valuable thing? What if this intransigence and procedural pettiness have social value? In other words, even when leadership is true to the worst clichés about itself, it is still useful. Just because these uses are invisible—the buzz that never happened, the fanatic who leaves humming—doesn’t make it any less real. It just means they don’t thank anyone.

See also  Mourners face 14-hour wait in queue for Queen’s lying-in-state

[email protected]