The Individual, The Enterprise, and The State

R. I. Tricker (editor), Associated Business Programmes, London (1977)


The idea of power has fascinated man’s imagination over the centuries. The ability to make things happen, as Mary Parker Follet once defined power, is fundamental to the achievement of personal ambition, corporate objectives, or social aims.  It is also central to the practice of management.  Surprisingly, managers and writers about management have only turned their attention to the notion of power quite recently; although it features in many discussions now between executives. From management at shop floor level to the taking of strategic decisions about the long term future of the firm, managers feel that their rights and authority have been eroded.

For generations managers have acted confidently in the belief that promotion into the appropriate box on the organization chart conferred power.  Loyalty, respect and recognition of authority came with the key to the executive washroom, the named car parking space and the seat in the senior dining room.  Discussing their management style, such executives tend to perceive themselves as friendly supportive, benign – able to create a climate in which the team want to achieve, with them, the corporate goals. ‘With communication and participation, delegation of authority with proper accountability, I achieve results.’ But what if commitment is not achieved? What if others insist on pursuing other goals?

At strategic decision making levels, too, there is a feeling that the old freedom to take decisions has been lost. ‘Instead of setting tough-minded goals and driving hard to achieve them for the benefit of everyone concerned, I find myself seeking consensus in a welter of competing interest groups.’  The traditional roles of the business corporation are also being questioned.  The interests of groups outside the classical firm have to be recognized.  Demands for accountability and access to information challenge the legitimacy of the enterprise in society today. Increasingly the state seems to be involved in areas previously the exclusive realm of corporate affairs.

Thus middle mangers report a feeling of being less able to make things happen, more of operating in a vacuum; and senior executives complain that some of their entrepreneurial freedoms are being lost. Where has the power moved?  On what basis does the power of modern management lie? Is the apparent shift towards large and impersonal organizations and the corporate state, with a diminution in the significance of the individual, really occurring?  What is the legitimate role of business in society today?