Prophets for profits

In previous posts Ralph has been talking about the way that contemporary theories of management take for granted the idea that a manager needs tools and techniques in order to achieve organisational ‘success’. In this post I want to begin describing what I see as the appeal to the religious imagination that leaders and managers are also required to make, and which usually accompanies the more instrumental focus on grids and frameworks in many management books. At the same time as using the right managerial tools managers and leaders in today’s organisations are required to be ‘passionate’, ‘positive’, ‘inspirational’ and ‘visionary’. Managers and leaders are expected to be prophets as well as experts, preachers as well as technicians.

On the one hand there is something very important about the appeal to affect and ideals. As the philosopher Hannah Arendt noted, collective promise-making is a very powerful way of disposing of the future as though it were the present, of beginning things anew and imagining a better world. Unfortunately very often the appeal to the religious imagination in turn becomes schematised and reduced and is understood in a highly individualised way as a ‘tool’ of management. There is a great potential for manipulation. For example, there are training courses on visionary and inspirational leadership and endless management books offering advice on the same. Currently it would be impossible to apply for a job in many fields without claiming to be ‘passionate’ about whatever the job on offer is. Although being passionate and visionary are regarded on the one hand as exceptional requirements, they are demanded routinely in everyday situations. Noble sentiments have become banal, another tool in the toolkit of aspiring managers and leaders. The proliferation of advice on how to be authentically passionate and succeed in management testifies to the fact that authenticity is difficult to fabricate – you have to practice quite hard at it.

I was reminded of confluence of passion, inspiration and business by Steve Shapin’s most recent book The Scientific Life: a Moral History of a Late Modern Vocation . The book is a contemplation by Shapin, a historian of science, on the degree to which ‘the personal equation’ has disappeared from science and industry. In late modernity, he argues, many would argue the whole swathes of social life have been brought under the sway of impersonal reason. Planners and bureaucrats, with their tools and techniques, can plan the future rationally, can plan for innovation and spontaneity and can close the reflexive circle by giving rational accounts of ourselves as social beings and how we function. However Shapin gives some very good examples of how affect and idealisation persist, particularly at the interface between science and business. For all those concerned in the undertaking of making money from scientific ideas, moral claims are as important as economic ones. The quality of scientific thought and rigour are not sufficient for a scientist eliciting investment from Venture Capitalists (VCs). The scientists are encouraged by the supposedly hard-headed VCs themselves to offer visions of transformation:

‘…public displays of the personal virtues of passion, commitment and vision are looked for as signs that entrepreneurs have a chance of success. Asked about money motivation among entrepreneurs, a VC responded: ‘The guy who wants to do it for money? He’s going to bail on you when the going gets tough and everyone’s going to have tough going. These things are built by people who have a passion. You need people who want to change the world.’

Shapin visited one of the universities which host scientists seeking capital as part of his research. University staff were coaching potential entrepreneurs to convey passion and excitement about what they are doing, with staff advising them to abandon dry and academic language and translate their nervousness into bodily gestures of excitement as they give their PowerPoint presentations to potential investors. Presenters are not just required to describe vision and commitment, they are asked to perform it.

Alongside being offered grids, tools and frameworks, it seems to me, contemporary managers and leaders are schooled in the art of artlessness, they are trained to be authentic. How might we think about this persistence of what George Bush senior referred to as ‘the vision thang’ and the fluency with idealisation and affect that contemporary managers and leaders are supposed to have?

In his book A Secular Age, the Candadian philosopher Charles Taylor argues that increased secularism which began with the Enlightenment has not lessened our imaginative desire to be part of something greater than ourselves, to the degree that we are now living in what he calls a ‘culture of authenticity’ where everyone is expected to commit to personal development and self-expression of our inner nature, where nature is taken to be a source of truth. Earlier, in his book Sources of the Self Taylor dates this tendency which he calls ‘expressivism’ to the Romantic period. The Romantics had a reaction against the radical implications of Enlightenment thinking with its ‘classical stress on rationalism, tradition and formal harmony’ and instead accentuated ‘the rights of the individual, of the imagination and of feeling.’ To give imaginative expression to something inchoate, like a feeling or a sense of things, is to draw on an idea of some kind of inner unity with nature, with things as they really are:

Fulfilling my nature means espousing the inner élan, the voice of impulse, And this makes what was hidden manifest for both myself and others. But this manifestation also helps to define what is to be realized. The direction of this élan wasn’t and couldn’t be clear prior to this manifestation.

Taylor notes the strong influence of biological models on the expressivist turn, where the movement is organic rather than mechanistic as each organism is called upon to unfold what is already enfolded in unity with nature. He sees this as something of a rebellion against a world described by cold formulas and calculations, where the world is understood as operating like a machine. He also draws attention to expressivism’s strong appeal to individualism, whereby we can each fulfil our individual destiny which is unique to us by getting in touch with our true nature.

In his enquiry into what has become of our religious imagination in, Taylor puts forward the idea that the call to passion has arisen as a reaction to an age dominated by disengaged reason:

Now it appears to many that desiccated reason cannot reach the ultimate truths in any form. What is needed is a subtler language which can make manifest the higher or the divine…Deeply felt personal insight now becomes our most precious resource.

If we were to take up Taylor’s argument we may better understand how the professionalization of management and the appeal to the religious imagination may go hand in hand. The contemporary management discourse on the importance of passion, belief, excitement and faith in the organisational mission as revealed through prophetic insight by the leader, or the top management team is a way of resacralising the workplace as a site of spiritual engagement. It is a foil to understanding the process of organising merely as an activity realising targets and outcomes, placing this activity in the expression of a higher truth. Employees are invited to imagine their efforts as contributing to a greater, truer, noble undertaking.

At the same time, leaders who are able to articulate this immanent vision are clearly very special people who need to need to be highly rewarded for their ability to articulate their true nature, which is aligned with Nature itself. Equipped with tools and techniques, leaders are also prophets and seers offering ‘change we can believe in’.

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