Substance over Style or Management for the Rest of Us

Devotees of Lord Sugar’s business methods may find today’s post rather baffling. What I say follows on from yesterday’s post and deals with the second half of Benedict’s chapter on the cellarer or business manager of the monastery. It is all about value, but not quite as that is often understood. It is about management in which substance is rated above style.

Benedict’s first point is that the cellarer must be humble (RB 31.13). No strutting his stuff or playing the status game. No, he must be grounded in reality (for that is what humility means) and that is the surest of all foundations for whatever he undertakes. The way in which that humility is worked out and manifested is interesting, especially when he is in what we would call a tight corner or asked for something impossible:

 . . . when he lacks the wherewithal to meet a request, he should give a good word in answer, as it is written, ‘A good word is above the best gift.’ (RB 31.13 quoting Sirach 18.17)

So, no bawling, no bullying, no primadonna tantrums, but courtesy and gentleness even in the most stressful situations. That is something to aim at, even if we fail dismally at times. Benedict goes on to say that the cellarer must not go beyond his authority. His powers are great, but if the abbot has said there is something he shouldn’t deal with, then he shouldn’t ‘presume to meddle with what has been forbidden him.’ (RB 31.15) Few of us like to think of ourselves as meddlers, but that is precisely what we are if we stray outside the boundaries of our duty. At a practical level, it can cause confusion and resentment. It can also lead us to have over-grandiose conceptions of our own ability, and that is never a good idea. The list of failed companies where the CEO had thought him/herself immune to market forces or even simple economics is long and growing longer.

Benedict’s cellarer is expected to be fair. If he isn’t, if he provokes others, then he is responsible for their failures. The example given in the Rule concerns the cellarer’s duty to provide for the brethren’s meals. If he is haughty or makes them wait unnecessarily, playing the power game again, ‘he must bear in mind what scripture says someone deserves “who tempts one of these little ones to evil.”‘ (RB 31.16, quoting Matthew 18.6) If you look at the scripture referred to in that sentence, you can see how very seriously Benedict takes the matter. Someone who does not act responsibly is a dead weight on the community—better he were not there at all.

Fairness is not all one-way, however, for Benedict recognizes that it is possible for an individual to be burdened with unrealistic demands, endlessly harassed by those who think that just because he is cellarer he must be constantly available to meet their every whim. On the contrary, Benedict stipulates that if the community is comparatively large, the cellarer must be given assistants to help him in his work and, tellingly, ‘Necessary items are to be applied for and distributed at appropriate times.’ (RB 31.18) How often does someone in a managerial position feel that his/her time is eaten up with small requests that interrupt the ‘real’ work of the day. Benedict has already made it plain that those small requests are, in fact, part of the real work of the day, but everyone in the monastery must ensure that they never become outrageously burdensome. He is asking, in effect, for a co-operative management style, having as his aim the peace and contentment of the community, for he concludes his chapter by stating that his reason for asking these things is ‘that no one may be upset or troubled in the house of God.’ (RB 31.19) That last touch, the reminder that the monastery and everyone and everything in it are God’s domain, is surely enough to remind any cellarer that it is God’s will he must do, not his own.

All very well in the monastery, you may say, but what are the practical applications outside? I think what Benedict says of the cellarer’s attitudes and behaviour are easily translatable into a secular context, although the language we use might differ a little. Good managers, whether they are running ICI or a small household, tend to have similar qualities. They are good at getting the best from other people because they respect others and are prepared to work collaboratively with them. That doesn’t mean they necessarily share their decision-making with them, but they are good at making people feel they are part of an enterprise rather than just a cog in a faceless machine. Courtesy, engagement (the ‘good word’), a sense of service, these are all important to the success of any business. They help create value. For Benedict, the supreme value  is the sanctification of the community members; for the rest of us, it is more likely to be a healthy balance-sheet and a happy workforce. Neither is to be despised.

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2 thoughts on “Substance over Style or Management for the Rest of Us”

  1. This can certainly be extrapolated across many civilian professions or even the military.

    For many years of my Army career the focus was on logistics. The law of supply and demand was very much in evidence here as elsewhere in life.

    We were responsible for supplying all of the material needs of a unit, from A to Z. Everything from clothing through to Armoured Vehicles, including all spares for repairs and maintenance. Our inventory was wide as we needed to be able to deploy quickly, so we carried lots of stuff, which before the days of ‘just in time’ supply systems, meant enough to survive for upto one month on operations before resupply might be available.

    Such a system needs a level of control to ensure that supply equals demand, but not to hold excessive stocks, which might never be needed, or might cause others, elsewhere to be deficient. Managing this was a bit of a power game. People expected us to have everything on the shelf, and would cause a fuss if they had to wait, a very consumer centric attitude, while we as guardians of the stocks (old Army adage “Stores are for Storing”) had to keep the bigger picture in mind and to turn down unreasonable demands or those that didn’t meet the timescales we needed to restock – after all, what if WE needed the thing that they wanted? Surely, we had priority.

    This led to some interesting conversations and even confrontations. I had the power to say NO, firmly, with all the excuses in the world why they couldn’t have it, while they had all the good valid (or invalid) reasons for needing that particular commodity. In the end, it could come down to ”entitlement”. Were they scaled to hold the item? What happened to the old one? What had they done with the twenty or so of it, we’d issued to them a week or so ago? Oh yes, being in the stores was definitely a position of power, but one that also needed discretion.

    Our reason for being was to supply to meet demand, if we were obstructive or small minded, how would this impact on the units capability or efficiency? Questions that needed to be borne in mind when considering any demand for supplies. If we didn’t have it in stock, than there would necessarily be a wait until it could be obtained, so, ascertaining their priority for it was key. If it was needed urgently (and could be justified by operational priorities) than we could use all means to obtain it, even down to sending someone hundreds of miles to collect it from a supplier if necessary. Costs would not be an issue in these circumstances.

    The relationship between the supplier and demander was something to be nurtured. Sometimes I felt that I needed a Chrystal ball to preduct need! But in reality, demand was pretty predictable and management of our resupply was simple and straight forward. It just seemed to be the culture around that we made it as difficult for the demander as possible. Even citing regulations in protection of our position.

    I wonder if any institution breeds this sort of mind set. ‘Jobsworth” being the phrase that I have in mind. I’m delighted to report that I wasn’t one of the ‘jobsworths’ as I saw my role to support and to help, and as a vital cog in the whole machine that pulled together to prepare us for exercises or operations and I should make sure that we provided the level of service that the unit needed and deserved, often at great personal inconvenience. I can remember driving all night, hundreds of miles to and from supply locations and the unit deployed somewhere to get something urgently needed.

    So, would I make a good cellarar? I do hope so. 🙂

  2. Thank you, Ernie. It’s interesting, to me at any rate, that many of the early monks had been soldiers. I suppose the discipline and selfless service element passed naturally from one to the other. I suspect you’d make a v. good cellarer!

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