18th November 1994 at 00:00
What gripes me is how easy they had it during the war. It's no good telling me it wasn't like that, I've seen the movie.

If you were in charge, busy sinking the Bismark, say, or invading Normandy, and you wanted something to happen, you only had to rap out a few crisp orders and, happened. What's more, you won the instant respect of the men who were grateful just to serve under your command. You certainly didn't have problems with staff turning up late for registration, or sniping at you behind your back because they hadn't been consulted about the timing of the parents' evening.

Even if you made a habit of beating subalterns to a pulp for minor misdemeanours, it would be seen as no more than a harmless idiosyncracy.

Do you remember "Ice Station Zebra"? "We're on first name terms on this ship, my first name is Sir." If you were in authority, that was what you expected, and all you had to do for it was to be a bit craggy. These days anybody caught being craggy would be sent on a course to improve their communication skills.

In reality, being at the top means you have to spend hours patiently convincing everybody else that your proposal is the least worst option.

In the movies, there is a hushed silence whilst the great man unerringly identifies the one course of action that nobody else had spotted, but which is instantly recognisable as the Only Possible Thing To Do.

No wonder military metaphors seem so attractive as a way of describing the job.

"The loneliness of command" is a pretty glamorous kind of loneliness and there is no higher accolade from one professional to another than that of "running a tight ship". Or is there? Increasingly, that kind of talk is sardonic. It is accompanied by an ironic twist to the face. If you are "rallying the troops" or "leading from the front", you can only do so by putting it inside a pair of air drawn apostrophes.

You can, of course, turn to sport as an alternative. It is possible to show somebody the red card without raised eyebrows about the appropriateness of the image, and it's probably your job to create a level playing field, if not to try and stop somebody else moving the goal posts. But it's a pretty paltry alternative.

The metaphors that come most readily to mind turn you into the referee, the groundsman or the manager, not one of the players, except, perhaps, when what you score is an own goal. The risk of being out in front is inglorious failure and in contemporary sport there isn't any other sort.

When Graham Taylor ruefully commented after resigning as England manager that "When they sing 'Turnip, Turnip, give us a wave' you give them a wave," he was acknowledging an essential truth about management in an age when the consumer is God.

That explains where the metaphors now come from that slip most easily off the tongue. There was a time when accountants were just figures of fun, now they are the masters of the universe. Now you can audit anything. As long as you've drawn a line under what happened in the past, you can get on with making sure that what you are providing is good value for money.

And if you have built up credit with the staff, making sure that your stock is high, you can get away with anything. That's what I call value added.

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