Monday, May 16, 2016

The Long History of (Management) Gurus

I used to deride the whole idea of the “consultant”, essentially someone who gets paid a lot to advise others how to act. 

But reflecting more carefully on their role in modern business, aren’t consultants in fact the modern equivalents of wise men and women of yore — veterans with deep experience who, by choice or not, do not actually practice what they preach?  

Consultant: medieval version.
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Not all consultants are superannuated in this fashion. But even consultancies run by those long before retirement, always tout their x years or decades of combined experience, which usually add up to the length of the career of a single retired person. 

Thus a random sampling from the Internet of quotes from various consulting firms: 

The most successful consultants do receive hefty remuneration to convey knowledge about a particular field, which comes mostly through experience, as opposed to mere academic training. 

No wonder that consultants’ preferred media of communication are the business meeting and the oral presentation. 

Their most valuable advice relates not the technicalities of the field, but to behavioural subtleties the mastery of which can lead to greater professional success. 

Certainly, consultants do publish their thoughts in books. Management consultants especially did (at least in the recent past) enjoy best-selling readership. 

But whatever the differences in the various books on management, they are characteristic for their “conversational” style, heavy with epigrams and aphorisms: for example (and tellingly) “management is about people.” 

Revealingly also, management consultants were during the height of their popularity often called “gurus”, as are the most otherworldly of the wizened teachers of wisdom. 

Certain consultants become gurus, because their ideas seem more oracular, than logical. It is their submergence in the oral culture of speech and beseech, which makes them seem like religious mystics.  

The engagement of elders for their wisdom endured long after the accession from tribal-kinship society. 

The oligarchies that controlled ancient city states especially, were in essence councils of elders, men who’d distinguished themselves in the service of the polis.  

The Senate of Rome was just such an entity, constituted originally as an advisory body only, whilst lawmaking was theoretically in the hands of the Assembly of the People. 

Eventually, though, the Assembly of Seniors took precedence over that of the People, which in turn became an irrelevance and formality to the power structure. With the rise of the emperors, the Roman Senate itself became irrelevant. 

Not coincidentally, empire’s the younger man’s project: Julius Caesar was scarcely in his forties when he began his campaign of conquest in Gaul and elsewhere, before assassinated by the elders of the legislature, fretful about his life-dictatorship. 

Casear was da bomb.

Earlier, Alexander the Great conquered most of equatorial Eurasia years before his early death at age thirty-two. Modern empires, too, were overwhelmingly the work of younger men wishing to escape the suffocation of gerontocracy.  

Apart from class struggle, there is an inter-generational contest in every major society between youthful thirst for adventure and novelty, and elders who seek stability and tradition. In modern times, revolutionary movements, like imperial conquest, have been the work of younger men.  

The Protestant Reformation, for example, was begun in 1517 when Martin Luther, then aged 35, nailed his “ninety-five thesis” to the door of the cathedral of Worms. 

Luther’s successors in the revolt against the Catholic hierarchy, were also young men: Jean Cauvin (known in the English-speaking world as John Calvin) was just twenty-one when he began to attack the church hierarchy in Geneva. 

Another Swiss Protestant, famous in his homeland but largely unknown outside, was Huldrych Zwingli, who was just over thirty when he began his theological revolt. 

John Knox, the architect of Scots Protestantism, was about Luther’s age when he became involved in Reformation. Yet even here, the old-fashioned dynamic came into play. For when the Kirk was formally Established, it was governed by Elders — the Presbyters

Similarly, the state Protestant churches established throughout the Occident, had senior clergymen taking control of matters once again. 

Thus, whatever his firebrand ways as a man in his thirties, the elder Martin Luther allied with the German dukes and princes who wished to reign in the instability of ecstatic religiosity, propagandizing against the even more radical young churchmen who succeeded him, as they were suppressed by the nobility. 

The Prussian church to which Luther gave his name, was appropriately sober and senior in constitution. The Reform clergy seemed to understand early on that the capriciousness and instability of youth, was contrary to the becalmed liturgy and lifestyle they wished to impose on society. 
Observe, young friends.

The first of today’s liberal democracies were mostly founded by Protestants, whose version of responsible government was strongly presbyterian in character. 

Thus the upper chamber of modern bicameral legislatures — the one closest to the executive — is always the Senate, or an equivalent name given to an assembly of the old and wise. 

Traditionally, too, these were appointive bodies, as was the U.S. Senate until 1912, while members of the Canadian and British upper Parliaments are appointed even today. The rationale for reviving this ancient institution in modern constitutions, was precisely to give form to the oligarchical basis of democracy. 

The Canadian Senate has been called the “house of sober second thought”, with the sobriety of the cognition therein presumed to come from seniority and a lack of responsibility to an electorate. 

If the Senate here or in any other country, gives short shrift to this function in actuality, there was nevertheless the intention (and the hope of some even now) that it would do so. What does it say, however, about the dynamism of present-day businesses, when they seem to pay so much to consult with elders?

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