Can you manage this?

Today's corporate culture leaves little room for conscience, responsibility or scepticism. Today's managers are responsible for everything, but also nothing.

Geoffrey Heptonstall
31 January 2014

Flickr/StrellevikIn management they talk much about leadership. Leadership is a word to be used with caution. ‘Don’t follow leaders,’ was Bob Dylan’s advice to a generation of dissenters who provided their own leadership without reference to pre-existing authority. How many truly inspiring leaders are there in the world today? It’s all rather bland, isn’t it? Pioneers are labelled mavericks now. Joan Little wood, Yevtushenko, Picasso – mavericks. The Pankhursts, Gandhi, Che and Fidel – mavericks. You hear the term applied even by the avowedly liberal. Such people once considered leaders and exemplars are now marginalized as wayward. There is no virtue in questioning the way things are done. Individuals are such a nuisance where the corporate will is the supreme governance.

Leadership is highly regarded, whereas leaders are not. The preferred style of management is anonymous. Management courses offer modules in leadership. When I googled the word leadership I found the following useful distinction: management is about planning, co-ordination and organization; leadership is about providing inspiration and motivation. In reality management is about attending meetings and agreeing with everything you’re told by someone senior. Leadership is about exercising your authority to those who report to you. In the corporate hierarchy everyone knows  his/her place. It is by respecting this hierarchy that the individual functions within the whole.

If the best way to lead is by example then all those modern management courses are a waste of time. Corporations in modern experience do not welcome initiatives. They are not open to ideas, whatever their publicity may say. Ideas from the junior are a threat to the senior. The management structure inspires neither inspiration nor confidence: it instils a habit of obedience which is misnamed as loyalty. Leadership in the modern corporation is a euphemism for power.  

Knowing yourself is a prerequisite of the truly educated mind. Self knowledge is the fecund ground where self-esteem and wisdom may grow. A qualification in corporate leadership is not an education. It is a training in obedience. To speak of talent in this context is a misuse of language. Management training does not develop the intellect, nor stimulate creative endeavours. It is a surrender of self to the corporate ideal. 

The ideal functions by evading all rational consideration and objective assessment. ‘I will not be bullied,’ the manager insists in admonishing an underling who dares to suggest that the guidelines are not being followed. Charges of harassment may be brought against the unfortunate underling who legitimately challenges a manager who is not managing well. Of course it is a sign of weakness on the manager’s part. The lack of authority is inexcusable. To become the simpering victim at the first hint of questioning immediately disqualifies a manager. All those training modules, all those paper qualifications are no substitute for the personal qualities which the corporate hierarchy does not encourage.

Punitive sanctions have grown exponientially. What this growth signifies is a dearth of respect for that most precious of all resources, the human one. A generation ago disciplinary action was rare and only used in extreme cases. Today it is integral to management style. The threat of disciplinary action is never far from a manager’s lips. There is no conversation. What we have are guidelines, pages of them. At a glance they appear quite liberal with all the talk of inclusiveness and respect. Read between the lines, or see their application, and they become the means of silencing democracy in the workplace.

It is in the cut and thrust of mutual exchange, percipient and incisively so, that we sharpen our intellectual resources to articulate a vision of the world. An educated mind must be capable of meeting the challenges to its view of things. There are other perspectives from our own. The questions they may raise we must acknowledge as legitimate. If we do not respect others we cannot respect ourselves. If what we believe is so fragile it collapses at the first sign of examination it is not much of a belief.

Can any self-respecting intellect believe that a corporate entity contains all that is virtuous? Are we to believe that the great questions of human history have been resolved and that all that remains is to determine the structures of inevitable development?  The future is decided for as long anyone can see. The totality of experience is encompassed beneath one carapace named as freedom. We are free to choose from a range of possibilities whose resemblance to one another is more marked than the differences between them.

Liberty, said Jefferson, is not necessarily contained within the law, for the law may be the law of tyrants. It is in the informal network of agreements that liberty is to be found. From this we may conclude that freedom is to be found not within the independent individual, as Jefferson avowed, but within the individual’s personal acknowledgement of the common good. One thing is clear, however we may interpret Jefferson: freedom is not to be found within corporate structures, those unaccountable quasi-states whose influence across the whole world is held to be both irresistible and right.

The individual is weak; the corporation is strong. The manager who feels ‘bullied’ by underlings may not be play-acting after all. The manager, over-promoted and under-educated, has not found, and is not expected to find, the personal resources to deal with complex challenges. Decisions must be referred upwards. There is a chain of command that is not a simple pyramid but a labyrinth of inter-connecting categories of management.

The roles are not readily deciphered from the titles. It is not immediately evident how the work of the Business Support Officer differs from the work of the Administrative Director or the Strategic Planning Manager. It is not evident even on closer examination what decisions are taken by these people as individuals. The responsibilities are distributed. Power is distributed. The mechanism functions by not being open to scrutiny. There is no-one in control. There is no leader. There is only leadership.

The mechanism is designed not to be evaluated. It resists reform. It is intended to function no matter who is in the driver’s seat. In fact a certain level of mediocrity, and even of incompetence, is preferable to the independent and sceptical intellect. The qualities of scepticism and irony are to be mistrusted in a world of certainties.

The solution to everything is simple. There is no need for complex regulation. Free of red tape, business will generate prosperity. Interest rates, wages, rents, prices all will find their own level. There is a magic solution. It is called the free market. Left to its own devices, the market will generate the money that creates a better world. It’s quite simple. Sceptical enquiry and caution are needless complexities. It’s a candyfloss world that produced the crash, and that survives the crash. Don’t worry: it shall all come right.

And if everyone accepts the pretence, at least there’s plausible deniability. No-one is to blame. We’re all in this together. There’s sound conscience – if no one on the inside ever says it’s wrong, we can keep doing it until someone with authority and integrity finally shines a light on what is happening.

In the end what is disappearing is the habit of personal conscience. The notion of conscience is slipping away from the vocabulary of social discourse. In the free market we are permitted to choose whatever we find convenient and useful. But we are not expected to make judgements derived from first principles. There are no moral absolutes, only relative values. Don’t blame yourself, the books on counselling say. Managers never blame themselves. If things go wrong, say the management courses, ask yourselves what you can learn from this. (But on no account admit failure.) What you learn is not to get caught next time. Make sure the signature on the final draft is not yours.

The keynote in all of this is the notion of collective responsibility. It makes accountability so much more difficult. No one person actually makes a decision. Yet everyone supports that decision. The support comes not from conviction but from loyalty. Doubt is not an available approach. Loyalty demands that the corporate decision always receives support. And the only form of loyalty is unconditional acceptance. This allows no space for critical questioning, nor even for creative contribution. The corporate will is deemed to be more valid than the human intellect.

We seem to be approaching a strikingly unbusinesslike area of emotional responses. The idea of the corporation becomes an area of faith, if not of actual devotion. A mechanism of commercial interest justifies and dignifies itself by a metaphysical conceit. It is not only about buying and selling: it is about being. The corporate ideal demands the whole of your being. All life is encompassed and incorporated in a single organization.

The quasi-religious fervour with which the corporate ideal is brandished contains its implicit threat to all potential dissenters, heretics and infidels. The corporate ideal can work only with those prepared to be absorbed into the mechanism. Civil society demands of its citizens rational, free choice in voicing their contributions to the continuing debate. The corporation demands acceptance of things as they are.

This applies to the workforce of course. It also applies to the customer. Corporate slogans give the game away: Live well for less; Your M&S; You make us what we are. Your favourite brand is on your side. It is always there for you. It’s not about making money out of you: it’s about helping you to save money. In fact, it isn’t about commerce at all: it’s about your life. It’s your grocery, your bank, your local pharmacy. It is the place for your clothes and furniture, your hardware and electrical goods, your music, movies, books and toys. It will even help you buy your house. It is your life. Can you imagine life without it? It feeds and furnishes your body, mind and soul.

The deterioration of sensibility and intellect involved in this cannot be overstated, in so far it is stated at all. We have a corporate culture in which life becomes a glitzy gulag. The important things are trivialized into an homogeneity of values that never can be questioned. Nobody knows how, not without a risk assessment and reference to the corporate policy on inclusiveness. We’ll get back to you on that. Thank you for expressing your concerns on these issues. Your details have been passed to the relevant office who will contact you in due course. Your concerns are very important to us. We have placed your name on file. If you have any further queries please do not hesitate to contact us.


Liked this piece? Please donate to OurKingdom here to help keep us producing independent journalism. Thank you.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData