Books: Homespun truths have their own limitations

This book tries to explain simply how to manage, but, says Paul Gibbons, simple has two meanings and both apply here. Management is fiendishly complex. Humans are mercurial, obstinate and irrational. Their social systems develop their own dynamics: power, control, competition and personality clashes. Add strategies, structures, hierarchies, processes and IT systems, and the effects from the wider business system: regulations, mergers, quarterly pressure on income, and head-office or Whitehall initiatives ... whew!

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's heartening to see a book on management amid the slurry of books on leadership. Leadership is a sexier topic, management gets left behind - but good managers are as rare as good leaders.

Unfortunately, you can't learn most aspects of management from a book.

In every organisation to which our company acts as consultant, we meet managers who 'have read all the books'. Startlingly, this is their biggest liability as a manager; the 'I know that already' approach prevents them from learning anything. They know about management: the right words to say, what best practice should be, perhaps the theory of running an effective meeting.

What they lack is 'knowing how' (or embodied knowledge). Compare this with driving: long before I could drive, I could describe how the clutch allowed my father to change gears as speed decreased while simultaneously using the brake to slow us down as we turned a corner with the steering wheel.

This conceptual knowledge made me dangerous behind the wheel because I lacked embodied knowledge. Conceptual knowledge gets you only to first base, and having tips and slogans can be very useful when starting out down the tough road of management.

Enter The Rules of Management - a noble attempt to cut through this complexity and distil it down to some simple, memorable axioms. If this review were restricted to one word, that word would be simple. Simple means both understandable and facile, and both meanings apply.

The book is easy to understand because Templar uses everyday language such as 'cut the crap'. This directness is the most refreshing aspect - 'If you don't enjoy your work, move over for someone who does'. There is an elegant simplicity in one or two of the rules: 'Head Up, not Head Down', 'Know When to Let Go'.

I imagine a reading of the book at the right time could serve as a wake-up reminder to a manager caught in the drama and complexity of a difficult managerial situation. Such simple mantras can be organising principles that act as heuristics in decision-making.

It also has an excellent orientation - that of personal responsibility.

Templar has little truck with whingeing. Rather than moaning about your boss, he says: 'Your job is to take away their pain and make them relax.' Rather than complaining about staff bringing you problems, Templar exhorts managers to 'train them to bring you solutions, not problems'.

But the book is also facile: some of the rules are truisms, and none of them offers much help in implementation (just how does one 'Be Creative' - Rule 65). Templar seems a self-taught, intuitive and pragmatic manager.

Many of the examples are taken from his experience, and although these home-spun truths have strengths, they also have limitations.

His implied model of management is 'Be a decent chap, work hard and take care of your people'. He doesn't really mention any helpful models from any new theorists (Belbin and a spot of NLP is as hip as he gets). He avoids giving tips on some important management setpieces, such as performance appraisal, selection interviewing, and managing time and resources. This omission limits the usefulness of the book for newbies in management.

He also avoids explicit mention of a number of the themes that ring loudest in the ears of contemporary managers: diversity, managing change, matrix organisations, cultural change, and ethics (CSR, sustainability, business responsibility). Perhaps Templar is interested only in the basics and has avoided the fads. On the other hand, the management landscape is changing and these topics represent a permanent evolution in management thinking.

Finally, there is the problem of making some of the personal changes necessary to become a better manager. Everybody knows how to say no; everybody knows how to give difficult feedback. This knowledge can be useless in the face of a personal psychology where saying no or entering into an emotional situation is tough.

World-class management development works at this level, with the psychology of the 'self'. Without shifting the self, managers will be limited in how much they can apply tips, tools and techniques.

- Paul Gibbons is managing director of management consultancy Future Considerations. He also lectures at the University of Surrey

The Rules of Management

Richard Templar

Prentice Hall, £9.99

MT price £8.99

To order, visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk

- All the books reviewed are available from the MT bookshop. To order, call 08700 702 999 or visit www.mtmagazine.co.uk. P&p at £1.95 will be added to each order.

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