23 Nov 2021

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 two examples: Sir David Brailsford and Sir Alex Ferguson. Brailsford obsessed over every tiny cycling detail: diet, clothing, saddle design, crank length, VO2, airflow, psychology. Ferguson obsessed over training, skills, sleep, preparation, hydration…

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, more training, more practice, and more rehearsal.

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

Our taste for drama, for NEWS, means that we prefer to hear stories of sweat, blood and tears. But even though middle management tasks make boring stories, the truth is that history is built on logistics, organisation, and marginal gains.