05 Jan 2022

In praise of middle management

History is written by triumphant leaders and their acolytes. Lost in the miasma, middle management tends to get bad press, along the lines of “You can’t manage your way out of a crisis.”

I’d argue that success arises from the capture marginal gains, and that’s where middle managers are at their strongest.

Let’s take UK cycling and Sir David Brailsford, another example of obsession: saddle design, crank length, VO2, airflow, psychology… Marginal gains that collectively deliver significant performance. 

Now let’s look at Manchester United FC and Sir Alex Ferguson. Again, no detail was too small to be overlooked: diet, training, skills, sleep, preparation, hydration… marginal gains that build into a greater whole.

Come to think of it, success seems to come from manic attention to even the tiniest detail, with a heady mix of control-freakery and obsession. In fact, success lies dead-centre in the domain of middle management.

And here’s a final example: Field Marshal Sir Bernard Montgomery – an obsessive planner, who insisted on fitness, training, practice, rehearsal, and caution, even as he triumphed on the battlefield.

My guess is that the sweet smell of success makes us forget the hard slog, the practice hours, the measuring and monitoring…

Trouble is, we prefer sweat, blood, tears, and drama: the clash of pedals, the chemistry of Cantona, the dash across North Africa.

But even though middle management tasks make boring stories, the truth is that history is built on logistics, organisation, and marginal gains.

And to return to “You can’t manage your way out of a crisis…” well, you probably can. If a crisis is an unexpected challenge, then stability and caution combined with speedy action will be far more likely to succeed than inspirational leadership based on a hunch.

In praise of middle management. Let’s have more of it!