One of the women in our office has lovely feet and gorgeous slender toes that are always beautifully manicured and painted in stunning, bright fashionable colours – she has just come out in yellow for spring. I would like the other girls to follow her example and I’m planning a ‘Twinkle Toes’ competition with a prize of a paint-and-shape for the winner. Now HR has said that this could lead to trouble unless it’s open to men too, but I can’t bear boys wearing sandals, let alone with painted toenails. Shall I take a brave step with a single gender approach?
If I were to initiate an award for the nation’s silliest agency chief executive, you would be the one to beat. You’ve not only had a ridiculous idea but you’ve also failed to appreciate that your HR department, far from getting all egalitarian, is actually doing its best to save you from making an even greater fool of yourself.
But your letter, and your HR department’s considerate suggestion, have prompted a wider thought. The popularised myth of management is one of an all-powerful leader who makes dynamic unilateral decisions that are then implemented downwards throughout the organisation. If they work, the all-powerful leader survives and prospers; if they fail, the all-powerful leader is swiftly replaced. Think Premier League football managers and you’ll get the picture. It’s a clear, clean model of management, widely mirrored in the admiring profiles of chief executives.
But, in real life, such leaders are rarely found – which is just as well for all concerned.
If I were writing the job description for a future chief executive, I wouldn’t write: "Wanted. A strong-minded and visionary individual whose confidence and decisiveness will impart clear directives to all those employed in the enterprise for which he or she is responsible."
I would write: "Wanted. A slightly confused and thoughtful individual who knows that sustained and successful leadership is dependent on the preservation of a shared, benign conspiracy. While this leader will give every outward appearance of infallibility and resolute leadership, he or she will know that continued success is wholly dependent on those who are being led wanting their leader to succeed; to the extent not only of contributing discreetly to policy and practice but also, and equally discreetly, saving their leader from the consequences of potentially catastrophic decisions. In short, the chief executive we seek must know that successful management demands two different but complementary abilities: internally, to listen and involve and manage the muddle and ambiguity that any organisation entails; while, externally, to exhibit unruffled sanguinity."
I’ve no idea why your "Twinkle Toes" competition should have set me off on this lofty reflection. Perhaps silliness is contagious.
But, if you want to go on running your company, please have the good sense to accept help from within when it’s so generously offered. You need it more than most.
How can I make my agency future-proof?
You can’t. In 1964, Pelican published The World In 1984, in two volumes – a series of predictions commissioned from the world’s most qualified experts. They make fascinating reading. Predictions made in 1964 can now be read from the safe perspective of 50 years later. Fifty years ago, here are some of the innovations that were "common currency of gossip for the next decade": the wristwatch radio powered by body heat; the colour TV set carried in a handbag; the TV set that’s carried from room to room and hung up like a picture frame.
The decline and imminent death of newspapers was predicted but nobody foresaw the mobile phone as personal computer-cum-camera. The growth of satellite communications was thought to mean a steep decline in travel. Nobody speculated about climate change or the internet. Fuel cells were about to revolutionise almost everything. And so on and so on.
None of this is to mock. If you’d read those books in 1964 and kept their ideas as floating hypotheses in your open-minded head, you would have been better-prepared for the future than any competitor. But you wouldn’t have been future-proofed.
‘Ask Jeremy’, a collection of Jeremy Bullmore’s Campaign columns, is available from Haymarket, priced £10.Telephone (020) 8267 4919
Jeremy Bullmore welcomes questions via firstname.lastname@example.org or Campaign, Teddington Studios, Broom Road, Teddington, TW11 9BE