Terence Blacker: The cult of the self has done for leadership

The modern idea of management is that it is the aggressive pursuit of self-interest


When it was recently reported that British managers were out of touch with their staff – were generally deluded about their own worth, in fact – it was almost impossible not to think of television's most hopeless boss, David Brent of The Office. In reality, one does not have to turn to TV comedy of the past to see what is going wrong with British management. It is there in every minute of The Apprentice, and is borne out by the business guides and manuals which are riding high in the bestseller lists.

The study, conducted by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, revealed that managers consistently have a more grandiose view of their own effectiveness than do those working for them. Eight out 10 people with responsibility for others thought their staff were satisfied or very satisfied; asked the same question, a little over half the employees agreed. In every test of good personnel relations, there was a significant gap between the manager's version and how his or her staff saw what was happening.

"Leadership and management capability continues to be an Achilles heel for UK plc," according to Ben Pimlott, of the CIPD. Managers needed to long look in the mirror to find out why. Unfortunately, the mirror is the problem. Modern management, we are encouraged to believe by entrepreneur celebrities like Alan Sugar, is about the aggressive pursuit of self-interest. There is no place for the collegiate, the generous or the empathetic.

Business has always been brutal, but this self-led style management is very much of the moment. In the distant past, the officer class of manager – CJ, the barking boss in the 1970s TV series The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin, for example – may have been stupid, snobbish or mired in social prejudice, but he had a residual sense that with power came responsibility.

Today, self is what matters. Look on the business bestseller list on Amazon and you will find guides for "visionaries, game changers and challengers", tips on how to sell, or "mind-manage" or "speed-read people", but nothing on working with others for your benefit and theirs. Perhaps business is simply reflecting the outside world, where loyalty is regularly mistaken for cronyism or weakness, and the idea that the rich and privileged should show personal restraint has grown out of fashion.

Managers may argue that it is their staff who have changed, becoming more querulous than before, but the CIPD survey is convincing. Staring at themselves in the mirror, today's managers are less aware of their responsibility for others, than their forbears. They have learned the great lesson of the early 21st century: success and selfishness belong together.


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