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There is no divine right of managers

19 December 2014

Business should be learning from the Church rather than the other way round, argues Justin Lewis-Anthony

THE Green report (News, 12 December) is evidence, once again, of the rude health of that alternative religion called "managerialism", which has its roots in the development of complex industrial organisations (CIOs) in the 19th century.

Allocation of resources and assessment of profits were tricky tasks, which required people experienced in co-ordination, evaluation, and planning, i.e. managers. In the 1890s, H. M. Norris, an advocate for management, said: "The manager's desk should be the Alpha and Omega of every transaction. It should also be the information bureau of the establishment. No work should be done without the manager's authority and sanction."

CIOs were successful at generating the profits that transformed Western society. People soon began to think that that success was caused by the managers. If management worked for CIOs, why not for other areas of human endeavour? By the 1980s, this had taken on the status of holy writ.

Michael Heseltine, in the first Thatcher government, asserted that managerialism applied to all aspects of society: "Efficient management is a key to the [national] revival. If Britain's managers fail, we can turn out the lights. And the management ethos must run right through our national life - private and public companies, civil service, nationalised industries, local government, the National Health Service."

The religious assumption in Norris's teaching is now expressed in the (divine) right of managers to manage. Management is apparently the only thing standing between us and utter destruction, the only power that works in a world of chaos, amateurism, and inefficiency. The Church of England is dowdy and shambolic compared with the shining graduates of the business schools, which makes it tempting to think that we should run ourselves along the lines of a CIO. If managerialism has worked for them, why can't it work for us?

THE truth is that managerialism has not worked. Looked at objectively, the success of CIOs is only tenuously related to the actions and beliefs of the high priests of managerialism. Last spring, Richard Foster of Yale University demonstrated that the average life-span of a company on the Standard & Poor's 500 Index has collapsed from 67 years in the 1920s to 17 years today. He further estimates that, in seven years' time, fewer than 25 per cent of today's companies will remain on the index.

Foster believes this to be a good thing. He is an emeritus director of the management consultancy McKinsey, and he espouses "creative destruction" for companies, in which resistance to change is an indicator of the necessity to impose change, suddenly and without negotiation.

One sect of managerialism takes it further still. The inventor of "Business Process Re-engineering", Mike Hammer, says: "On this journey we shoot dissenters." The rhetoric is violent and coercive, and brooks no dissent. There is no alternative.

By contrast with the average 17-year lifespan of today's companies, the Church has been here, worshipping God and serving the people of England, since before England existed. IBM and General Electric should be setting up training courses to study the Church and its ability to reinvent itself, to find new ways of expressing its God-given mission, its skill in coping with the challenges of prosperity and utter disaster.

This is not the advice of a complacent advocate of a liberal consensus. My training was in history, at the London School of Economics. History encourages the long view, which is seriously lacking in the current leadership of the Church, which, even more depressingly, shows a lack of faithfulness in God's working his purposes out.

The effectiveness of St Augustine's mission wasn't because he developed a talent pool, strategised about the best pagan practices to adopt, and ruthlessly excluded from resources those who did not deliver on the mission action plan. As Bede tells us: "They were constantly engaged in prayers, in vigils and fasts. . . They despised all worldly things as foreign to them; they accepted only the necessaries of life from those they taught; in all things they practised what they preached and kept themselves prepared to endure adversities, even to the point of dying for the truths they proclaimed."

As one contemporary historian put it: "Many found faith and were baptised through their admiration of the simplicity of it all."

The Revd Justin Lewis-Anthony is Associate Dean of Students at Virginia Theological Seminary.

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