Taking umbrage

Taking umbrage

The armed forces are inevitably dedicated to obedience, to doing what ranking officers command and to the harsh reality of conflict and battle. Interestingly, most have changed more over the last decades than businesses in the art of handling human beings. Why? Because they have had to. The intake of recruits, whether compulsory or voluntary, has developed a sense of personal worth and right to achieve that for a long time was alien to military service.

The cause of this is education. We all devoted much time and money to improving education often with stumbling steps and fettered success, but progress was made. Slavery was abolished some time back – at least in theory. Today there are still huge numbers of slaves in all but name. They are the people who get shouted at, whose bosses ‘take umbrage’ as a substitute for thought and decency. The cry “I am not a gentleman” may have been a wonderful show-stopper in the 1960s. Today it sounds like a pathetic attempt to strong-arm a point of view rather than debate it.

I had a boss, many years ago, that today I claim must have been an ancestor of D Trump – former President. I couldn’t prove the connection but a picture of the two of them alongside each other would convince the most discerning of face recognition intellects. My superior’s claim to fame was on his desk. It was the only picture he had in his rather expansive office. It showed him and John Wayne arm in arm. It was a clear and unequivocal statement indeed.

My boss used to give a drinks party once a year at the end of a day for those working in the office. Most of the people who came were secretaries. His invitation always read “Please join me in a sec’s party on so-and-so date”. It set a tone that the most hardened of survivors found unacceptable – even in those days. To him it was jolly japes. You could probably be sent to prison for publishing something like that today.

His worst feature was his completely arbitrary decisions about people. Just after I had joined him he ordered me to fire a fairly junior man who was getting on in years. I asked him why and he replied that he didn’t like the little hats the man wore. He added that he didn’t think he was very good and lacked obedience for a failure to comply with some trivial and meaningless order. I resisted, played the waiting game as long as I could but in the end he said I was to fire him or lose my own, very new, job. I regret to say I agreed and I have blushed every day since. The man’s name was Dick Chittenden and he was in the heart of the USA.

Not all bad bosses are that bad but whatever level of rudeness, thoughtlessness and arbitrariness they achieve they should be stopped and retrained to handle people properly. The culture of a business is a weird creature. It has little or nothing to do with ESG statements made at the front of the annual report. Commitments about human capital and the assets going up and down in the lifts are without humour or purpose. But the way the CEO greets the cleaner still sorting out his study in the morning tells you everything you need to know.

Times have changed but the following story is forever, I think.

The first company I worked for in 1951 was then the largest advertising agency in London. The Chairman, Major Harrison, a champion of mine, was in his late seventies. He would reach work in the smart St Martin’s Lane, London office at 10am. One morning as he got into the lift a new messenger boy jumped in with him at the same time. The boy was chewing on a large peppermint toffee and observed the somewhat amused view the man was taking of him. Thinking to level the field the boy pulled out his packet of toffees and offered this elderly man one. “No, thank you,” replied the man, adding “do you know who I am?” The boy confessed his ignorance.

“Well,” replied the man, “I am the Chairman.” The boy thought for a moment then pulled out his packet of toffees again and said “In that case, you’d better have two.”  The Chairman didn’t take umbrage. Six years later he appointed the messenger boy Managing Director of the business.

Keep the relationship light but clear. Understand authority but always question it.

You could become a good Managing Director, too.