Dr Mary Brown: Managers are not an elite '˜priesthood'

Twenty years ago Stephen Pattison wrote a book called The Faith of the Managers, in which he suggested that managers had replaced ­spiritual leaders as the '˜cultural heroes of our time' and that ­management had become a form of quasi-religious faith.

This may seem far-fetched, but developments since have proved him to be essentially correct. Organisations, whether in commercial, public or charitable sectors, now seem to believe that financial problems can be solved by shedding operational staff and employing more managers, on the basis that their self-professed expertise will work its magic.

These are not cheap appointments either – the belief, rarely tested in practice, being that ‘good’ managers won’t come unless they are paid well over the average salary.

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Pattison deliberately uses the term ‘managerialism’ to describe the belief that managers will have all the answers, as opposed to the neutral word ‘management’, which implies that any organisation needs people to pull processes together.

Managerialism has ­sinister connotations, suggesting an elite who possess uniquely efficacious knowledge and skills and promote themselves as such. It also suggests that a manager can move from running a supermarket chain to a university – no specialist knowledge needed, just the latest management techniques, which apply universally.

Often these techniques suppose a belief that it’s not enough to be an efficient manager – they should also be a ‘transformational leader’. This takes the religious metaphor even further – the manager as ­messiah leading the organisation to the promised land of prosperity, for the managers and shareholders at least – as the lower level ‘human resource’ is expendable.

This is the idea of managers as a sort of priesthood, who alone have power to decide what happens. The whole leadership obsession can be funny – think David Brent in The Office – but it can also be sinister.

Professor Dennis Tourish of the University of London exposed The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership in his book of that name, pointing out that mistakes by so-called charismatic leaders led to the financial crisis of 2008. Yet we still take it for granted that all organisations need such ‘visionary’ leadership. Uncritical belief in the power of such individuals can only encourage poor decision making at best and narcissistic megalomania at worst.

What can be done about this?

Thankfully, writers like Professor Tourish are increasingly challenging the received wisdom that management is universally a Good Thing. But an effective challenge to the managerial priesthood also needs the support of political decision makers and the unions, who have too often accepted a myth with toxic consequences.

Dr Mary Brown is a freelance education consultant. She lives in Banchory, Aberdeenshire. www.deesidewritingsupport.co.uk