On the “leadership (r)evolution”

Back in 2009, Henry Mintzberg observed that, whilst Peter Drucker had put the focus on management 55 years earlier, ‘Leadership has since pushed it off the map. We are now inundated with stories about the grand successes and even grander failures of the great leaders. But we have yet to come to grips with the simple realities of being a regular manager.‘ (p1) Nowadays, the very notion of management seems to have been completely effaced by an unblinking concentration on leaders and leadership.

Why is that? Not yet a century ago, after all, James Burnham was declaring that the world was in the grip of a managerial revolution. This writer emerged from a milieu where a major theoretical challenge was to make sense of what was happening in the Soviet Union in terms of the relations of production – and how capitalism, despite predictions of its demise, was persisting. This wasn’t merely a conceptual issue: it went to the very heart of the weird micro-politics of Trotskyism, with one groupuscule doggedly maintaining that the USSR was a “deformed workers’ state” and another asserting that it was assuming the form of “state capitalism”. (It has been observed on more than one occasion that all Trotskyists really think about is sects, sects, sects…)

Burnham’s arguments were two-fold. Firstly, he made the assertion that capitalist relations of production had been fundamentally altered by the growth of corporations and the expansion of management in that context. Indeed, he took the view that managers actually represented a new global ruling class, having assumed the direct responsibility for managing both private firms and large state enterprises.

To me, this runs counter to the more significant tension in economic life, which sees management geared primarily to the short-termism of ensuring that stockholders receive their dividends. Hence, management practice is skewed by a focus on growth and profit, as opposed to concentrating on opening up opportunities for enhancing effectiveness, supporting people to have a genuinely positive experience in the workplace, and embracing an authentic ethical orientation.

So, Burnham’s political assertion about management as a social class for me does not hold water. But the foundation that supports that faulty assertion – that management has grown and developed as a distinctive and powerful caste in economic life – seems irrefutable. And his secondary thesis – that a global convergence could be perceived in respect to management, with social democratic, welfarist states (particularly in Europe, but discernible even in the USA through initiatives like the New Deal); the Nazi regime in Germany; and the top down, centrally controlled Soviet Union sharing the simple fact that all these systems were overseen by “managers” – encourages due consideration of the theory and practice of “managerialism”, which is discernible, of course, in Max Weber’s important observations around bureaucratisation.

Similarly, we find something akin to this analysis in the work of Simone Weil, who also provides a carefully considered opinion of the development of bureaucratism across the globe in the 1930s and 1940s, which is discernible across that triumvirate of welfarism, fascism and communism. She was also mindful of the intensification of alienation that derives from increased mechanisation throughout the productive economy, which led her to observe that automation generates a segmented workforce wherein one element ‘execute the work without, strictly speaking, taking any active part in it, and those who direct the work without executing anything’ (p10-11). This is the division between the machine-setter and the person who functionally operates the machine.

In this regard, Weil perceives the machine – or, indeed, any productive technology – as forming an impassable barrier. And she goes on to posit that, ‘At the same time, the development of the system of limited companies has created a barrier – less precise, it is true – between those who manage the business and those who own it.’ (p11) Hence, across organisational life, she takes the view that cohesiveness is being fractured: a division occurs in the workforce, in response to automation; and one has also developed between those who own and those who run companies, due to the development and growth of limited companies.

This latter observation – resonating with Burnham’s views – is vitally important: Weil sees these managers as a bureaucratic caste, whilst Burnham makes the grander claim that they constitute a new global ruling class. Weil’s view seems better grounded both in evidence – from the time when she was writing and even up to today – and in reason, in terms of the shaping of the argument. And it leads her to this powerful conclusion, which resonates painfully in every corporate setting right up to our modern day.

Never has this phenomenon been as striking as today, when undertakings on the verge of bankruptcy, having sacked a host of workmen (sic) and working at a third or a quarter of their productive capacity, preserve almost intact a managerial staff composed of a few directors drawing fat fees and clerks who are ill-paid, but whose numbers are out of all proportion to the rate of production. (p12)

In a private sector setting, the term bankruptcy in this formulation would seem to refer directly to financial business failure. Meanwhile, in the public sector, bankruptcy might be taken to refer to boundless consumption of tax-pounds – but might also be argued to mean a lack of (or evaporation over time) of actual purpose. This is as true now, unfortunately, as it was at the time in which Weil was writing her insightful analysis.

The growth of managerialism – its expansion in corporate settings, both private and public, and its intrusion into almost every aspect of our day to day lives, embracing the personal, the domestic, the intimate, and even the domain of “retirement”, as so ably laid out in Hancock and Tyler (2017) – is very apparent – has been over the last 100+ years or so. And yet, over time, there has been an effacement of management in favour of a focus on the slightly vaguer notion of “leadership”.

There seems little doubt that this recasting of organisational function is partly about the cultural management of the workplace. As Morrell & Learmonth (2019) suggest, the dichotomy of manager and worker acknowledges a tendency towards contestation, where the two agenda collide with one another. Supplant that binary opposition with the terms leader and follower (the latter linguistically implicit in the ontology of the other, of course), built as it is on the facile and fictional notion that “we’re all in this together”, and we can see how this might offer helpful ideological obfuscation.

To move on a step, we can surface the ridiculous conceit of flat, post-bureaucratic, holacratic organisations and expose that to the harsh illumination of our critical interrogation of hierarchy and power in the workplace. These promote themselves in terms of having stripped out management and leadership: in truth, these functions persist, spiralling out of control and implicating everyone to assume the mantle of management and leadership without enjoying any additional practical reward (aside from a vague and illusory sense of feeling more in control). Who needs a boss when the team is breathing down your neck (and holding you silently to account as a “team player”)? Meanwhile, the “big boss” is pretty much unaffected by all of this, of course.

I want to posit another possible explanation for the way in which the terms “management” and “leadership” are used in present corporate life. Management as a practice grew up as production became more complex and seemed to require a separate caste of people directly to oversee the efforts of the producers. The standard capitalist narrative argues that factories founded on piece work needed someone to ensure that all the pieces got properly manufactured and came together successfully. Underneath this was, of course, the vital practice of overseeing and surveilling the workforce for the purposes of efficiency. However, managers, in even this context, sat tightly alongside the practical work of the enterprise in question.

All of which leads to a conclusion that undermines the very idea of “leadership” as the driving force and directional impetus of our current organisational life, namely that,

The further away from the actual productive activity of the organisation members of the managerial caste sit, the less they have a meaningful connection with the actual day to day work – and hence the more likely they’ll be called “leaders”.

One cannot be properly called a manager if one does not manage in practice some clearly defined element of the organisational process. Yet the managerial caste has, as Weil so succinctly explained, expanded itself atop the actual business of what firms and agencies – in private and public settings – undertake but without any meaningful connection to the day to day work of those organisations. To justify that growth, particularly as it has occurred in the direction away from the practicalities of what gets done, a new caste within the caste has been entitled – by which is meant both given a name and offered privileges – and it is known as leadership.

What is a sensible response to this curious development? It is two-fold: first, we need to prise the term leader away from its positional definition to an understanding based on the actions of human agents wherever they come together to organise (as opposed to congregate in order to fill an organisational structure); and, second, we must reconnect those formal leaders with the practicalities of what gets done in the context in which they work.

In simple terms, we need to radically collapse the distance between front line and back office, between the shop floor and the board room. And we need to challenge the reproductive capacities of the managerial/leadership castes by ending our fetishized fascination with the upper echelons of our organisations – and instead we must – all of us – constantly orient ourselves to what gets done – and how it gets done – in our organisational settings.

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