The misery of managerialism

Photo by Eden Constantino on Unsplash

Managerialism, involves belief in the value of professional managers and of the concepts and methods they use. Contemporary writers on management such as Thomas Diefenbach associate managerialism with hierarchy.”


A common tension that exists in almost every organisation is how to balance the tension between the push for innovation and the need to keep things stable and on course. It is the classic ‘leadership vs management’ debate, often characterised by the saying that ‘managers do things right, while leaders do the right things.’ This applies to schools as much as it does in any business setting.

We must avoid any binary thinking on this one – within any organisation there is a need for both management and leadership roles to be functioning. Within any organisation there will be people who, because of their personal disposition, skills and strengths, will be stronger in one of these roles than another. Leaders will often be distinguished by their excellent communication skills, strategic thinking and innovative mindset. Effective managers possess excellent diagnostic and analytical skills, technical skills and are likely to be good at building good relationships among staff. Again, this isn’t a binary thing – these skills will be present in both leaders and managers to some extent, just more strongly in some than in others.

A key thing that distinguishes a leader is vision. This is particularly true in organisations that have a strongly innovative culture. A visionary leader will ensure the organisation has a clear focus on its mission and purpose, and is always looking to the horizon to anticipate what may need to be done. A weakness of such a person is that they may be less included to be focused or sustain interest in the important work that keeps the organisation ticking over on a daily basis – which is where those with excellent management skills complement those of a great leader.

A problem I see occurring in many instances today (including schools and business) is where this relationship becomes unbalanced. In a time where accountability, compliance, risk avoidance and a focus on ‘the bottom line’ become the things that drive an organisation, it’s easy for the focus on management to dominate, and overwhelm the role of the visionary leader.

In his book, The New New Thing, Michael Lewis tells the story of Jim Clark, one of Silicon Valley’s most successful visionary leaders who founded several notable technology companies, including Silicon Graphics, Inc.Netscape Communications CorporationmyCFO, and Healtheon.

This book was an inspiration to me when I read it just after it was released at the turn of this millennium – a timely read in terms of being involved in starting up a new company at the time. I was particularly impacted by the story of Jim’s involvement in his first company, Silicon Graphics. When I first became seriously interested in computing in the 1980s the name Silicon Graphics was a company name everyone would recognise. It was the most dominant player in the computer industry when it came to computer graphics and 3D imaging. Nothing could compare in terms of the sheer processing power and speed of rendering etc. of graphics on a computer.

In his book, Lewis tells the story of how, at the height of Silicon Graphics phenomenal growth, Clark was struggling to juggle the responsibilities of running such a huge enterprise. His friends suggested he needed a board around him, to help take the burden a lot of the decision-making responsibility from Clark to allow him to instead focus on the entrepreneurial things he was good at. Clark conceded and a board was formed, and a range of managers then put in place across the company.

Before long a tension arose. Clark, ever the entrepreneur, was observing the rise of other companies such as Apple and could see how these smaller, desktop machines with their powerful chipsets could begin to erode the dominance of Silicon Graphics in the industry. He proposed a number of innovations to take Silicon Graphics in new directions to keep ahead of the game. His board, however, found his constant desire to reform the company a ‘nuisance’ and unnecessary as they were now enjoying the benefits of a highly successful, well oiled machine which was making excellent returns for shareholders. They felt that simply by continuing the do what they had always been doing, the ‘magic’ of the organisation would continue.

The tensions continued until after some time, the board elected to let Jim go from the organisation he’d founded. For Jim this was a huge blow, but ever the entrepreneur, in 1994 he left Silicon Graphics to start Mosaic Communications with Marc Andreessen, (which later became Netscape), bringing us the first web browser – and we all know the story from there. The fortune of Silicon Graphics on the other hand, operating under a regime of managerialism, plummeted. In fact, within the space of just a few short years, their dominance in the market was almost entirely eroded, and without a future-focused ‘plan B’, the company filed for bankruptcy in 1999.

This is an extreme example, but highlights the problem I see today in many of our schools and businesses where, or a variety of reasons, the focus on the things that concern managers become the things that determine the way the organisation operates. While leadership teams may take a few days each year to focus on things like mission and values, these things often get left in the drawer then as the focus returns to the disciplines of meeting the bottom line, ensuring internal accountability through strongly hierarchical org. chart, minimising risk and eliminating inefficiencies etc. As a result the organisation may appear to run effectively, returning good results for shareholders and being recognised by those who audit its performance, but it will struggle to remain innovative and future focused. A managerial approach is no substitute for the energy provided by visionary leadership.

I see this in schools that are impacted by critical ERO reports or community pressure as a result of poor academic achievement, and whose response is simply to ‘knuckle down’ and ‘do better’ in these areas, instead of considering innovative approaches of addressing these things. In businesses too, a change in share price and pressure from shareholders can bring about the same response – “we need to produce more widgets more cheaply”, rather than ” are we producing the right things and in the right ways?” etc.

Succumbing to the misery of managerialism sucks the entrepreneurial oxygen out of an organisation. Staff who are normally motivated and personally empowered by visionary leadership become unsettled and often vote with their feet by leaving. A culture of shared decision making, high trust and ‘can do’ approaches shrivels away as workers learn to wait for the next decision to ‘trickle down’ from further up the hierarchy, and have to wait for permission to make decisions about how they do their work. The result is an organisational culture marked by compliance, conformity and a complete lack of risk taking or innovation.

In schools that operate this way, the misery of managerialism is a two edged sword, as it affects not only the staff who work there, but, as part of the culture, can then set the tone for how students are treated. This is particularly concerning, as the last thing our young learners need is to be conditioned in ways that rob them of their creativity, problem solving and ability to collaborate effectively with others for the better of the whole group and society. These are the qualities that will become even more important as we prepare our young people for the future.

The real problem with managerialism is not the work of those with managerial responsibility within an organisation – they are essential to its success. It is when the utter belief in managerial processes and structures supersedes the role of visionary leadership and the ‘messy-ness’ of a creative, innovative workplace where there is tolerance of failure, an appetite for learning and a genuine valuing of every individual as a member of the team whose ideas are valued and can find expression in the way the organisation works. Without that we experience misery.

3 thoughts on “The misery of managerialism

  1. Ka mau te wehi e hoa .. you’ve captured my personal ethos perfectly. My extra 2c worth: Risk taking is central to what we do, and encouraging risk taking requires the granting of permission to fail.


Leave a Reply