I am able to report solid progress in the central mission of my life. Readers of long standing will know my dream is to retire without ever having managed another person. I have managed no one in London. I have managed no one on two US coasts. I am trying to decide which Asian city I one day want to manage no one in.
What explains the reluctance? Personal taste, yes. But also the lack of status, if not the outright stigma, that attaches to management among the British. This is the culture that invented David Brent to laugh at. Last year, Keir Starmer, the likeliest next prime minister, called an opponent a “middle manager”. Think about that. Anyone who has a junior at work but isn’t the overall chief of their organisation is a middle manager of sorts. That is a lot of voters. Yet a politician of some nous felt comfortable scorning them.
It owes something to Marx and something to Musk, this disdain. For the left, the manager is a collaborator with capital, a parasite on the value created by real workers. For the libertarian right, reared on Ayn Rand, the manager is a “bureaucrat”, a dead weight on those with vision and animal spirits. If you want to elicit cross-partisan applause, say the NHS needs more nurses and fewer penpushers. Of the elite corporate professions — law, finance, consultancy — the first two are vilified as ruthless. But only the third is seen as outright bullshit.
We could take this stigma head on. We could say that indifference to how things are run, and who runs them, cost Britain its industrial supremacy in the 19th century. We could cite the World Management Survey, which attributes much of the productivity gap between and within countries to management. Yes, it is hard to say “section head” or “departmental leader” without a sneer in the UK. It is fun to tease the US as the land of the joyless organigram and the extortionate MBA. But the joke is on the British: in ailing companies, in lower output per head, in a health service that needs better running, not just a hike in the funding that is already about the rich-world average. England hasn’t produced a Premier League-winning coach. It is a fact about which this football-barmy nation is amazingly incurious.
And there is the point. No policy, no round of investment in business schools, will save British management. There is, at root, a cultural problem. It is as old as the reluctance of Victorian industrialists to be seen near the factory, lest it mar their social ascent. There is grandeur in ownership. There is dignity in labour. It is the tier in between that has to plead for its reputation. Why this should be, in a nation that was so quick to evolve a middle class, isn’t clear. But the prejudice is real. And, for the country, expensive. Until a manager can state their profession at a party without a self-mocking joke, people of talent (and me) won’t volunteer for the role.
We can say all of this. We can deny that managers, to quote the line about teachers, can’t do. But it’s possible to go further. Even if management really is a quagmire, where the ideas and energy of others get stuck, what of it? The first purpose of bureaucracies, state or corporate, isn’t to achieve positive acts. It is to resist zealots. It is to keep the institutional organism from infection by rogue elements, even at the cost of curbing a genius or two along the way.
Even before Brexit, there were those who saw the civil service as an inert blob and others who thought it a precious thing. But what if it is an inert blob and therefore a precious thing? What if there is social value in all that intransigence and procedural pettiness? In other words, even when management is true to the worst clichés about itself, it is of some use. That those uses are invisible — the crackpot scheme that never happens, the fanatic who leaves in a huff — does not make them less real. It just means no one is thanked.