An Ode to Managers

All over Washington these days, there are people in suits sitting around conference tables gravely discussing the mess in the Middle East. Some are government officials and politicians. Some are scholars or think-tank pseudo-scholars. Some are journalists. Some of these Mideast discussions are top-secret, while others are actually broadcast live on television. But they all have one thing in common: Nothing will come of it.

The Middle East issue is legendarily intractable. But most such discussions in Washington—even among officials and certainly among scholars and journalists—aren’t even intended to solve the problem they are addressing, except in the vaguest of long runs. When, after many years in Washington, I found myself bizarrely employed at a subdivision of a large corporation (Microsoft), the meetings—of which there were plenty—were disorienting. It was not just the dress code: shorts and T-shirts instead of suits and ties. It was not just the subject matter: trivial matters of millions of dollars, instead of billions, or world peace, or something on that order. Finally I figured it out: Not only were these meetings expected to produce decisions, but those decisions were actually expected to produce results.

It was even more shocking to learn how hard it is to get from a decision that something ought to happen to making it happen. In Washington you can make a nice living just calling for things to happen. Or even declaring that it is “unacceptable” for them not to happen. (Arab-Jewish conflict in the Middle East, for example, has been unacceptable according to nearly everybody for the century-plus it has been going on.) Actually making these things happen is usually a hopeless and unnecessary aspiration. Either that or it’s just a matter of tidying up after the meeting. But in any case the point is the decision (or often merely the discussion) itself, not anything concrete that might come out of it.

Turning an opinion into a decision and a decision into a result turns out to be a real skill—like writing, except that most writers (including this one) don’t have it. As a skill, it is partly an innate gift and partly a set of learnable techniques. It may go too far to call business management a science, and most “how-to” business gurus are surely charlatans, but the premise that management is more than just common sense, and worthy of academic study, no longer seems absurd. Even some of the most easily mockable aspects of business life—meetings to plan for meetings, mission statements, PowerPoint slides, to name but three—are not complete jokes.

Corporate managers don’t get enough respect. Their image in the popular culture is still based on the one from the 1950s: A conformist drone doing life-draining work, the man in the grey flannel suit—even if he’s a woman and/or gets to dress down on Friday. The anti-corporate 1960s added an element of evil to the image, without any compensating dash of glamour. Starting in the 1980s, general attitudes about business turned positive. But, poignantly—and except for the absurd cult of the CEO—the spotlight of cultural admiration passed right over the corporate manager to focus on the swashbuckling entrepreneur. Even among conservatives today, the midlevel corporate executive is a figure of no cultural interest or value, except as someone with a job the heroic CEO must eliminate to prove his manhood. This is unjust. Even the most brilliant entrepreneur or camera-friendly CEO needs the odd assistant-vice-president or two who probably have skills he or she couldn’t duplicate at gunpoint.

One of the nice things about Washington, if you’re an egomaniac, is that you can be a big shot without being a boss. The same is true of the literary world and academia and the media. In all these environments, lucky people get all the self-esteem and all the perks of having an important job without needing to take responsibility for the work lives and work product of other people. In fact, the first few employees a rising Washington big shot acquires—a secretary, then another secretary, then maybe a scheduler and a speechwriter—are there to relieve you of responsibility even for yourself. This leaves a false impression of what management is like.

To take the most unpleasant example, have you ever fired someone? In Washington there are people who have fired rockets—and many who have written articles urging others to fire rockets—but have never fired a human being. The natural tendency is to think, “I’m much too nice a person to do that sort of thing”—and to feel superior to anyone without such scruples. Yet in an organization of any size there are going to be people who need or actually deserve to be fired. It is hardly the nicest solution to leave that job to someone nasty enough to enjoy it. The amateur’s approach is either to work yourself up into a sadistic fury of your own or to chicken out. Watching a pro get the job done with minimum emotional damage on both sides is impressive. I couldn’t do it, and most of you, dear readers, couldn’t either.